Northwest Technical College Exploring New Programs in Gerontology and Dementia

Nearly two dozen health care professionals from across Minnesota and Wisconsin gathered at Northwest Technical College for a Feb. 9 listening session to help the college explore potential new academic programs in gerontology and dementia.

NTC is exploring gerontology in response to a rapidly aging population and increased need for care—and for providers of that care. The Minnesota State Demographic Center estimates that 285,000 Minnesotans will turn 65 during this decade — more than the last four decades combined — and that the state’s population of persons aged 65 and older will eclipse the state’s population of K-12 students for the first time ever by the year 2020. By the year 2030, the center estimates fully 20 percent of the state’s population will be older than 65.

Conversely, health and human service professions are facing grave shortages. By 2020, the number of nurses is expected to fall 20 percent short of needs, and more than 55,000 social workers are currently needed to provide long-term care support for aging persons. This burden for care is falling to volunteer, often untrained family members; an estimated 43.5 million people in the U.S. currently provide unpaid care to a person older than 50.

Darrin Strosahl, NTC’s vice president for academic affairs, said a technical college provided an ideal environment for delivering this kind of training. He encouraged the health care professionals in attendance to be candid in their feedback to the college’s proposal.

“A technical college is a great way to gain skills tied directly to employment and open other pathways to four-year college degrees,” he said. “We need you to share ideas and thoughts. We want to create something and establish something new to meet a community need — and also make sure that our students are correctly lined up for employment.”

Wendy Potratz, lead instructor for NTC’s Community Health Worker program, and Alicia Carley, from NTC’s biology faculty, have been leading the college’s exploration of gerontology.

Potratz said the idea first formed two years ago while attending a Minnesota Department of Health conference. There, she met Jennifer Ellis — who attended today’s listening session remotely and is an instructor for the gerontology and aging services program at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College in Shell Lake, Wis.

“This program stood out as a need,” Potratz said. “We have to do this because it’s a problem that needs to be addressed. Sometimes higher education can miss the boat because we don’t see what’s going to happen — with this, we can see what’s going to happen.”

Carley said the college planned to begin offering gerontology coursework as part of a custom training seminar as soon as this fall, and would hope to launch a standalone 15-credit academic certificate program in the fall of 2019. Saying that NTC likes to dream big, she asked those in attendance to consider the value of an eventual associate of applied science degree program in gerontology and dementia.

Julie Swedberg, from First Nations Home Health in Cass Lake, Minn., said her organization would value employees with a background in gerontology.

“For our agency, even hiring administrative staff or other non-nurses, if I saw they had this certificate it would be a bonus,” she said. “We’re serving older clients; for our employees to have that understanding, that’s huge.”

  • Julie Dokken, chair, health and human services division, Northwest Technical College; (218) 333-6657,