November 14, 2017

Occupational Therapy Student’s Poor Knowledge of Aging Demonstrates Need for Gerontological Literacy


by LaVona Traywick, PhD, University of Central Arkansas and Terry Griffin, PhD, Kansas State University

Society as a whole is aging and there are not enough health care providers in any health related field, including Occupational Therapy, to meet the current or expected needs of the senior adult population (Eldercare Workforce Alliance, 2011). According to the Administration for Community Living (2016), the senior adult population makes up 14.5% of the population in the United States. This number is expected to increase to 21.7% by 2040. Results from the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (Ashman, 2015) indicated that senior adults aged 65 and over visited medical offices more than twice the rate than the remaining groups (adults aged 18–64 and children under age 18 years). The current literature shows an increasing need for medical health professionals to work with the aging population.

A study was conducted with the first year, first semester students of the University of Central Arkansas Occupational Therapy graduating class of 2018 to determine their knowledge of aging prior to beginning studies. Once IRB approval was obtained, the modified version of Erdman Palmore’s “Facts on Aging Quiz” (Breytspraak & Badura, 2015) was deployed online via Qualtrics software. Using this convenience sample of 48 students, a 100% response rate was achieved consisting 43 females and five males, with a mean age of 24. Descriptive statistics showed that nine participants want to work in geriatrics, four want to work with adults, 16 want to work in pediatrics, five want to work with all populations, five want to work with special populations (such as spinal cord injuries), and nine were undecided.
The student’s knowledge of aging was poor, average of 33/50 (66%). A variety of analysis methods were applied to the data, but in summary the knowledge about senior adults was poor regardless of the students’ preferred population, year of birth, undergraduate degree, or duration of testing.

There was no significant difference in the test scores for the students who wanted to work in geriatrics as compared to any other population. It was hypothesized that students who desired to work with the senior adult population would have a greater knowledge of aging, but this was not the case. This fact is disconcerting because these students are not understanding the difference between normal aging and the disease process. The data results have brought a heightened awareness to the need to teach aging throughout the entire lifespan, including end-of-life issues.

Additionally, one-third of the entering OT class desires to work with solely pediatric populations. This is of concern due to the increasing need of therapists with the geriatric population. A previous study by Carmel, Cwikel and Galinsky (1992) showed that increasing knowledge alone as indicated by their scores on Palmore’s Facts on Aging Quiz was not enough to change attitudes about aging or the desire to work with the senior adult population. When knowledge of aging is not enough to encourage students to want to work with senior adults, it is even more important for course instructors to create opportunities for students to interact directly with senior adults. As there are limited amount of fieldwork options for students enrolled in therapy programs in general, opportunities for positive interactions with senior adults can be accomplished through Service Learning avenues.

In general, therapy programs in graduate schools are striving to teach as much material as possible in a condensed amount of time to stay competitive. Given no significant difference in test scores based on undergraduate degree, more emphasis needs to be placed in gerontological literacy in undergraduate programs across all disciplines. It could also be argued that prerequisites for incoming therapy students include a basic gerontology or lifespan development course.

In conclusion, the students’ knowledge of aging was less than desired and their intentions to work with senior adults was relatively low compared to other groups. It would be beneficial to the current students as well as the older patients if educators could incorporate more positive senior adult interaction opportunities along with teaching on aging. Future studies should look at other ways besides knowledge gain to change attitudes towards aging. Future studies should also look at the benefit of undergraduate education in gerontology for preparation of health care workers.

1. Administration of Community Living. (2016). Administration on aging. Retrieved from

2. Ashman, J.; Hing, E.;Talwalkar, A. (2015) Variation in Physician Office Visit Rates by Patient Characteristics and State, 2012: NCHS Data Brief No. 212, September 2015. Retrieved from
3. Breytspraak, L. & Badura, L. (2015). Facts on aging quiz (revised; based on Palmore (1977;1981). Retrieved from

4. Carmel, S; Cwikel, J.; Galinsky, D. (1992) Changes in Knowledge, Attitudes, and Work Preferences Following Coures I Gerontology among Medical, Nursing, and Social Work Students. Educational Gerontology, Vol. 18, Issue 4
Eldercare Workforce Alliance. (2011). Geriatrics workforce shortage: A looming crisis for our families. Retrieved from