Aisha Young is passionate. From an early age, she knew what she wanted to do. It wasn’t so much a specific job, but the difference she wanted to make. Her calling is helping older adults live well.
Aisha, as a younger Black woman, is not what some people expect to see in a gerontologist. She knew she was different when she was a kid. “I was in the fourth grade. Our class visited a skilled nursing facility. We were supposed to eat ice cream with the older people there, and even help feed them.” Unlike many of her classmates, she was fascinated. Aisha grew up very close to her grandparents. When people asked her what she wanted to do when she was a senior in high school, she already knew that she wanted to work with older adults.
“Aging offers so much more than youth – wisdom, knowledge, intelligence. Everything that is truly wonderful and joyous comes with age. “
She found her way to gerontology. “I am a gerontologist deep down in my heart. I have even tried to do other things.” She laughs describing her feelings about her work: “I just can’t quit you.”
Gerontology is, unfortunately, a bit of a hidden field. People sometimes confuse it with geriatric medicine or are even unaware of its existence. Gerontology is the comprehensive study of how people age: biologically, sociologically, and psychologically. Aisha describes gerontology as more on the human services side of things. “We specifically work with older adults. There is a saying “once a man, twice a child”, but it is not necessarily true. Becoming older is unique. No one knows what it is like to age in your body.” Aging is more than physical.
Aging is not the same for everyone
When Aisha graduated in 2018 with her Masters degree in gerontology from the University of South Florida, she knew she needed mentors, specifically some that knew her experience. She looked for a professional organization for African-Americans in the field. It didn’t exist.
While some might just bemoan the unfilled need, Aisha did something about it. She founded African-Americans in Gerontology in 2008.
Along with mentorship and professional connections, the mission of AAIG is also to educate people about how aging can be different for African-Americans. Many factors come together to impact aging, from the personal to the cultural. One example that Aisha gives is how African-Americans are more likely to have diabetes, which then correlates with higher Alzheimer’s risks.
Gerontologists need to understand all the factors than influence aging. Aisha also feels that people need to explore their biases. “Everybody has biases. You need to understand what biases you have and be willing to know a bit more. It is easier to help somebody when you know what issues they face. ”
Gerontology is more important than ever
We’ve known for a while that our population is aging, which is more than enough reason for growing the field of gerontology. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has made this even more apparent. Aisha points out that “it has put a spotlight on ageism, health disparities, co-morbidities – many things. Because of ageism, issues facing older adults do not get enough focus. The wrong thing has to happen to the right person for change to happen.” And, too often, older adults are not the right people to get attention.
The pandemic has also highlighted how different communities have been affected disproportionately. On top of existing inequities in health and health care, African-Americans are more likely to contract COVID-19 and have worse outcomes than white Americans.
People like Aisha will lead the way forward. AAIG is just one of her projects centered around gerontology. She serves on the Board of Trustees of the Intergeneration Foundation and has volunteered for more than a decade with the Pikes Peak Region of the Alzheimer’s Association. She is a American Society on Aging New Ventures of Leadership Graduate. Aisha is always excited to expand her skills: “If I’m going to do this, I need to be my best.” She also currently serves on SAPGA and is a presenter for African American Youth in Leadership.
Follow your passion
When work is being done on aging and ageism, Aisha notes that she’s often the only person who looks like her – “Black and young”, as she puts it – at the table. But, that is part of why she wants to be there. Her advice to others is that “it’s okay that this is your passion. Do not let anyone deter you. We need to be encouraging young people to get into this field.”
She continues to find new avenues. Currently, she is working on her second Master’s degree in pastoral theology through Xavier University of Louisiana. Her Catholic faith is her guide in life, and it took her to a new place when she was in the hospital herself not long ago. She asked to see a priest and the hospital didn’t have one.
Religious life is such an integral part of many people’s lives, especially African-Americans and older adults. Aisha saw a need she could fill, combining her knowledge of gerontology with spiritual training.
Aisha is considering a hospital chaplainship after she graduates, but when asked what’s next, she answers, “Wherever the Lord leads me.” Aisha trusts her path and keeps moving ahead. She advises people to take action about the things that matter: “Don’t just volunteer and sing some songs, really know what you offer that can make a difference.” And, then keep finding ways to offer it.
Read more about other people who are making a difference.
Sara Breindel, Changing the Narrative blogger