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UBC Okanagan Social Work grad Kathryn Plancke (L) and Assoc. Prof. Mary Ann Murphy - photo by Bud Mortenson
UBC Okanagan Social Work grad Kathryn Plancke (L) and Assoc. Prof. Mary Ann Murphy - photo by Bud Mortenson

UBC Reports | Vol. 52 | No. 8 | Aug. 3, 2006

UBC Okanagan Ready for the Age Quake

Aging specialization responds to the Okanagan’s high senior population and the greying of North American society

By Bud Mortenson

Tomorrow’s aging population is here today in the Okanagan — and Kathryn Plancke is ready for it, thanks to a new Aging Specialization available to Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) students at UBC Okanagan’s Faculty of Health and Social Development.

Plancke graduated in June 2006, and she is already putting her BSW degree and specialization in aging to work as a research assistant exploring seniors’ housing needs for the District of Peachland in the Central Okanagan.

“I took an aging policy course and it really catapulted me into pursuing this area,” she recalls. “It has blossomed into a whole career where the focus is on seniors and aging.”

In her final year of study, Plancke spent four days a week over nearly four months with the Interior Health Authority’s Community Care program, serving the elderly in downtown Kelowna. There, she gained practical experience as one of three social workers working alongside respiratory therapists, long-term care nurses, palliative care teams and other health-care professionals. It had a powerful impact on her, she says.

“I got a varied education,” says Plancke. “The multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary focus of the program really came alive and it was hard to leave. The experience of taking what we learned in the classroom and being out in the community was wonderful. I fell in love with it.”

Only one other university in Canada (University of Sherbrooke) offers an aging specialization in social work at the undergraduate level, and the Okanagan program is all the more unique given the advanced age of the region’s population: depending on the community, between 18 and 25 per cent of the people are 65 or older.

The Okanagan has been called a “gerontopia,” where a spectacular landscape, temperate climate, abundant recreational opportunities and high number of existing retirees may draw more people just like them. In fact, the Central Okanagan is expected to be one of the fastest-growing regions in B.C. over the next 10 years, and the senior’s segment — especially the 85-plus group — is projected to grow most significantly, says Mary Ann Murphy, associate professor of social work and sociology at UBC Okanagan.

“The sight of grandparents on every corner is a very normal experience for anyone in the Central Okanagan, but the rest of Canada will probably not see this for another 25 years,” Murphy points out.

“The university recognized that the age quake was happening in the Central Okanagan much sooner than in the rest of Canada, so our program responds to our unique social geography,” Murphy says.

Murphy designed the specialization in aging with an advisory committee that drew expertise from disciplines including fine arts, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, sociology and nursing. She is currently developing a Minor in Aging for the Irving K. Barber School of Arts and Sciences, derived from a unique formal association between the university and the community — a gerontology consortium that includes 30 Okanagan agencies and organizations working on research, education, training and improved quality of life for older persons.

This close affiliation with community and service agencies creates natural opportunities for students to gain real-world experience — the kind of intensive, rewarding learning experiences that Plancke enjoyed in her final year in the program.

“You’re developing new practical placement opportunities as you go,” says Murphy. “It takes a lot of energy to get it off the ground, but I’m totally sold on this approach.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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