With Maine’s baby boomers aging at a rapid clip, it’s important to have a broad network of professionals and volunteers who understand their needs. That’s why the Maine Center on Aging, headquartered at the University of Maine in Orono, has recently launched two online certificate programs aimed at sharpening the skills of community leaders, nurses, social workers and others with an interest in supporting older Mainers and their families.

For Laurie Qualey, 42, of Orono, the Interprofessional Graduate Certificate in Gerontology is a complement to the Master’s in Social Work she’s completing.

“I am really interested in working with older people,” she said. “They’re typically so lumped together, like ‘these are our seniors,’ but this program really shows the diversity and differences within that population.”

Issues of gender, socio-economic status, ethnic background and sexual identity affect people’s needs as they get older, she said. “It’s not just this monolithic idea of what means to be an older person.”

Qualey, who has worked as a public school science teacher and in her family’s granite business, also serves on the board of the Bangor Humane Society. She has a passion for pet therapy and has spearheaded a volunteer program called “Cats on Laps” that brings affection-starved shelter kitties to visit residents of nursing facilities.

Qualey also brings her own well-mannered dogs to socialize with residents, many of whom have had to give up beloved pets to enter a facility.

“If you’re homebound, sometimes a pet is your only companion,” she said.

Among other goals, Qualey hopes to use her education to help establish a network of community volunteers who make regular visits to elderly pet owners, helping them with tasks like walking the dog or changing the litter box, including a social visit while they’re there.

“I think this is an unmet need,” she said.

The Interprofessional Graduate Certificate in Gerontology, now in its fourth year, offers a broad perspective on issues related to aging, according to Len Kaye, director of the Maine Center on Aging. Three upper-level courses provide grounding in the social, psychological and medical changes associated with aging, he said, and make the certificate an attractive addition to the resume of any professional interested in working with the elderly. An optional fourth course focuses on public policy and advocacy.

“This program is relatively unique on several counts,” Kaye said. “It address the interests of a broad sweep of professionals. It brings together not just social workers and nurses but also doctors, audiologists, speech pathologists and other professions. We want everybody speaking the same language.”

Each three-credit course costs about $1,500 for Maine residents and about $4,300 for nonresidents. The program has attracted enrollees both from Maine and several other states.

Additionally the program focuses on the special challenges of helping people age in rural communities, Kaye said.

“In areas where there are limited programs and agencies, you really need to become more of a generalist,” Kaye said. “That’s what it’s all about in our rural communities — becoming a jack of all trades.”

The Maine Center on Aging also offers the non-academic Certificate in Grandfamilies Leadership, aimed at supporting older adults in Maine and elsewhere who step up to care for their grandchildren or other youngsters in the family when the children’s parents are unable. The certificate program, which started in early 2016, will launch its next 12-week session at the end of February.

Jennifer Crittenden, assistant director of the Maine Center on Aging, said many community-based programs that support grandfamilies are informal and operate on a shoestring budget.

“Serving grandfamilies [effectively] requires an understanding of multiple systems including aging, child welfare, education, etc.,” she said in an email. “There seemed to be a gap in the field around bringing all the concepts together under one educational program. Our goal is to offer an accessible online program for a low-cost that will fill these educational gaps.”

The course costs $85 and consists of nine separate modules focusing on different aspects of aging. The modules are lead by UMaine faculty, social service professionals and other experts, both in Maine and from other states. Enrollees in the certificate program have also come both from within Maine and from other states.

“So far it has been mostly professionals,” Crittenden said, but some non-professional community leaders and volunteers have participated as well. And she added, many participants, both professional and nonprofessional, have experienced first-hand the challenge of raising their grandchildren.

“They bring a real passion for the issues to our online discussions,” she said.

Both the Interprofessional Graduate Certificate in Gerontology and the Certificate in Grandfamilies Leadership are taught exclusively online, with scheduled lectures, supplementary readings, online discussion groups and group and individual assignments. Additional information about these programs and other educational projects of the Maine Center on Aging are available at https://mainecenteronaging.umaine.edu or by calling (207) 262-7920.

Meg Haskell

Meg Haskell is a curious second-career journalist with two grown sons, a background in health care and a penchant for new experiences. She lives in Stockton Springs. Email her at mhaskell@bangordailynews.com.