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FGCU institute on positive aging aims to boost senior industry workforce

Given more than 500,000 people over age 60 live in Southwest Florida, the region is fertile ground to study — and support — seniors.

Thomas Felke, executive director of FGCU's Shady Rest Institute on Positive Aging, published a study in 2012 on the needs of older adults in Collier County.
Thomas Felke, executive director of FGCU's Shady Rest Institute on Positive Aging, published a study in 2012 on the needs of older adults in Collier County.
Photo by Stefania Pifferi
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Shortages of nurses and teachers in Southwest Florida often get a lot of headlines (and for good reason). 

But there’s another shortage that doesn’t get as much attention: the need for health care and social services professionals who work with older adults.

Thomas Felke has seen this need firsthand since joining the faculty at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers. His 2012 study on the needs of older adults in Collier County showed struggles with issues like poverty, food insecurity and social isolation and helped lead to the founding of entities like Baker Senior Center Naples.

Now Felke, the associate dean for academics and an associate professor at the Marieb College of Health & Human Services at FGCU, is adding a new role to his resume: executive director of FGCU’s Shady Rest Institute on Positive Aging.

Workforce development is one of four focus areas of the new initiative.

“We don’t have the type of health care professionals we really need at this point,” says Felke, 49, who has a Ph.D in social work. “We’re hoping that through some educational awareness and community outreach, we can start to bring some of that to light.”

The Shady Rest Institute on Positive Aging kicked off in 2022 after a $5 million gift from the Shady Rest Foundation. The foundation — formed with funds from the sale of the Shady Rest Nursing Home, which was founded in 1958 to provide care for low-income seniors in Lee County — had already gifted $4.1 million to FGCU for scholarships for students in nursing, physical therapy, occupational therapy, physician assistant and social work degree programs. Now this second gift will help the university study and address issues that affect the more than 560,000 adults ages 60 and over living permanently in Lee, Charlotte, Collier, Glades, and Hendry counties, as well as the other seniors who live in the region for just part of the year. 

When it comes to workforce development, the institute’s already gotten started with the creation of the Senior Care Partner Program, an online micro-credentialing program that teaches students how to coordinate services needed to allow older adults to continue living at home. “We are specifically looking at how to upskill professionals who desire to work with older adults who wish to age in place,” says Felke. 

Those professionals include employees of home care agencies, senior living organizations, health systems and medical groups and care management practices — or people who hope to work in those fields. “Programs like this where you’re giving these students additional content around how to work with older adults are going to make them much more attractive when they hit the workplace,” says Felke. “I do believe that employers are willing to invest in students who have that specialized training.”

The first cohort was a pilot of eight participants, the second cohort has 27 participants and the third cohort was scheduled to launch in November. 

As part of his community outreach efforts for the Shady Rest Institute, Felke talks with local employers and senior care providers about what they need, “so we are actually providing the education to our students that is going to be beneficial to them and older adults as a result.” 

Those conversations have informed next steps for the institute, which include the search for five new FGCU faculty members: a gerontologist, an art therapist, a music therapist, an expert in long-term care administration and someone in engineering with a focus on building for older adults. Those hires, expected to be in place by August 2024, will help the institute continue to grow and meet the needs of both older adults and the businesses and organizations that support them in the region.

A key component of that will be exposing more FGCU students to the benefits of working with the area’s senior population. “We’re trying to figure out, why do students tend to shy away from work with older adults?” says Felke. “We have theories in terms of how they look at the older adult population. But the research shows that students who work with children and work with older adults actually find the work with older adults much more rewarding.”

Jaclynn Faffer, president and CEO of Baker Senior Center Naples, says the need for professionals trained to work with seniors is so great that “we have to grow our own.” Baker Senior Center Naples established a program with the Department of Social Work at FCGU that provides $10,000 fellowships to two second-year MSW students who want to work with seniors. The first two students received the fellowship last year, and Baker Senior Center Naples hired both of them.

“What we show is that it’s not depressing [to work with older adults],” says Faffer. “It’s energizing; it’s wonderful.”

Faffer already has a professional relationship with Felke, and she’s excited that the institute will further shine a spotlight on ways to support the region’s older population. “Tom will bring multidisciplinary folks to the table, and I’m looking forward to working with him so that we can evaluate and further enhance what we’re doing,” she says.

Scholarships and fellowship programs definitely help give students a nudge toward careers working with seniors. “But I really think it’s going to be through the exposure piece,” says Felke. “That’s really what is going to allow our students to see just how relevant and impactful those carers with older adults can be for them.”



Beth Luberecki

Nokomis-based freelance writer Beth Luberecki, a Business Observer contributor, writes about business, travel and lifestyle topics for a variety of Florida and national publications. Her work has appeared in publications and on websites including Washington Post’s Express, USA Today, Florida Trend, and Learn more about her at

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