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Stephanie Chappell, MSG, MBA: Working as a Gerontologist in Business

Do you like variety?  Creating your own role within an organization?  Being unique?  If you answered a "Yes" then, working as a gerontologist in the private sector may be the career for you.

As the first person to graduate from the University of Southern California's dual-degree program in Gerontology and Business (MSG, MBA), I've created my own role within many organizations and industries over the past fifteen years- and had great fun along the way. I'd like to share some of my experiences and hopefully give you some ideas for developing your own career.

Education and Internships
While in graduate school, my first internship helped confirm that Gerontology was the field for me.  I lived and worked at Kingsley Manor Retirement Center in North Hollywood, California.  I thought that by living among the age group I was studying, I'd be able to tell pretty quickly if Gerontology was the right career choice for me.  My answer to that question was a resounding Yes!  As I joined my older neighbors in the common dining room for dinner every night and chatted with them in the lobby, the key lesson I learned was that they were all so different.  I experienced first hand the diversity of aging - an important lesson I will never forget.  From my work, I also learned some business basics in marketing, sales, regulatory compliance and accounting.

My other two internships offered the exciting opportunity to live in a different part of the country, and for two summers I lived on the East Coast.  I spent the fist summer in Boston and worked for Work/Family Directions, a small, privately-held company working with corporate clients to provide child care and elder care benefits.  My second internship was not far from New York City at IBM's US Headquarters  in White Plains, New York.  When working on a paper about elder care, I called Ted Childs, IBM's Director of Workforce Diversity to interview him about IBM’s elder care benefits and get his insight on where things were going with this benefit in the corporate world.  Later, I attended his session on eldercare at a conference and asked him if I could work for him that summer.  Together, we found a way to make IBM’s Human Resource internship program meet a gerontology program’s internship requirements.  I learned a lot during these internships by observing and working with some of the pioneers in business and aging.

I really enjoyed my time in graduate school and internships.  It was a time of learning, exploring and networking-some of the important activities professionals have trouble fitting in with work and personal demands.  As alums encouraged me, I encourage students to make the most of their time in school by attending conferences, volunteering and completing internships.  Use your role as a student to call up people in the corporate world.  Ask for advice, get their insights and explore opportunities.  Most everybody likes helping students.  And they just might need an intern to handle a couple projects that no one on staff has the time for.

Breaking into the corporate world
During the recession of the early 1990's, it was difficult to find a job.  Even tougher was finding companies interested in hiring me for my gerontology background.  That may seem hard to imagine now with all the media attention on Baby Boomer aging, but at the time companies weren’t investing in strategic initiatives related to the "mature market."  I quickly learned that I needed to focus my search on industries that are directly affected by the issues surrounding aging, such as health care, senior housing and financial services.

Health Insurance:
One of the few Southern California-based corporations that were focusing on older customers in the early 90's was PacifiCare.  PacifiCare was the first HMO to contract with the federal government to provide Medicare benefits while other health plans thought older patients were too expensive and risky.  Though my official title was something like Marketing Information Specialist, my boss liked to introduce me as "PacifiCare's New Gerontologist." Our department was called Senior Services, and we helped the Marketing and Sales departments with outreach to Medicare beneficiaries.  We also explored new programs and services to attract and retain customers. 

My experience in Senior Services became the first in a series of product development endeavors throughout my career.  Later, I had the opportunity to work on the development of PacifiCare's Medicaid, PPO and Medicare risk franchise products.  Though this work didn’t focus exclusively on the mature market, I learned about the business and honed important skills such as project management and team-building.

Senior Living: 
I always like learning new things, so when I had the opportunity to make a change to a different industry and a smaller-company environment, I took it.  In the later 90's, assisted living was a fast-growth industry.  It was fun to work at a company where it felt like we were on the ground-floor of something that was going to be big.  As Director of Licensing, I oversaw the regulatory compliance for 80 assisted living communities in 11 states and was responsible for obtaining state license approval for new communities procured through acquisition or development. 

Like PacifiCare, ARV Assisted Living was a forward-looking company.  The CEO hired a geriatrician to lead an effort to include health programs in our communities' service offerings.  As a member of the Health Services team, I helped develop staff training programs on dementia care and medication management and partnerships with companies in health-related industries such as pharmaceuticals and home health care.

Hospital System and Home Health Care: 
As the assisted living industry entered a rough patch, I was able to lean on my experience on the Health Services team to pursue new opportunities in health care.  At Memorial Health Services, I had the chance to learn about hospital systems, home health care, radiology and Medicare supplement insurance by helping these business lines develop new marketing plans.  Older customers are, of course, a critical market to these businesses.

While at Memorial Health Services, I was tapped to run the company’s companion home care agency based in Leisure World, Laguna Hills, CA.  A retirement community developed in the early 1960's, Leisure World was incorporated as the City of Laguna Woods in 1999.  The nation's "oldest city," Laguna Woods is home to 18,000 residents with an average age of 78.  Running a business that served Laguna Woods was a great opportunity to have a preview of what other communities will be like in the future as their residents' age.   

Long-term care and health insurance: 
As Laguna Woods has experienced, a key challenge with population aging will be providing and paying for long-term care.  While at United Health Group, I helped expand a program called Evercare which was designed to improve the quality of care for nursing home residents.  Evercare provides a nurse practitioner who visits nursing home residents regularly in order to monitor their conditions and treat problems before they escalate.  The goal of the program is to prevent hospital stays as hospitalization can be so hard on frail nursing home residents and so expensive.

Financial Services:
Now, as Corporate Financial Gerontologist at The Hartford, I’m working in a new industry, yet in a familiar role as consultant to the business.  For over 20 years, The Hartford has been the exclusive provider for AARP's home and auto insurance, and also manages the customer contact center for AARP's health and long-term care insurance programs.  To support its AARP line of business, the company has employed gerontologists since 1984. Today, there are nine gerontologists on staff.  We focus on employee and public education, specialized services, and consultation within the business.  In my role, I'll be supporting the investment and life insurance side of the company on the "Retirement Initiative," a major undertaking that spans multiple product lines with the goal of developing innovative solutions for helping Baby Boomers prepare for retirement.  I'm very fortunate to be a part of a company that views Corporate Gerontology as a strategic advantage in the marketplace.

Individuals who invest in a gerontology education are committed to improving the lives of older adults, and I have found multiple roles within the for-profit world to work towards that mission. Hopefully this article has given you some ideas of potential job opportunities in the private sector within small or even very large companies. 

In my experience, companies that invest in gerontologists focus on their older customers by:
  *Investing in research
  *Training employees regarding the unique needs of older adults
  *Actively supporting trade associations and their initiatives
  *Closely monitoring activities in the public sector and policy arena

All with the goal of anticipating challenges that lie ahead for an aging population and developing best-in-class service and products to meet those evolving customer needs. 

With more industries valuing the mature market, there are so many options today to create your own career path if you employ the skills and knowledge learned in school along with those you pick up on-the-job.  Some helpful skills for me have been:  problem solving, analytical, writing, project management and consensus building skills.  Also useful are personal qualities such as:  curiosity to learn, creativity and adaptability.

Stephanie Chappell, MSG, MBA
Corporate Financial Gerontologist
The Hartford

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