Social workers are often driven by a commitment to provide support and care to those who need it most – the aging are one such population. Medical advancements of the last fifty years have prolonged human life, but are unable to alleviate many of the complications that come along with the natural process of aging. As the population of older adults in the United States grows, the demand for professional service providers who are able to respond to the unique needs of the aging also increases. Gerontological social workers, those who study old age and aging processes, are well-positioned to provide the specialized support services and leadership in care coordination and administration that the older adult population needs.
Social work graduates interested in working with older adults and their families should consider a career in gerontological social work. A gerontological social worker’s role is likely to include the following key areas of practice:
Direct Practice with Older Adults
Gerontological social workers can expect to provide a variety of support services to older adults as they transition to new stages of the life-course and their needs and capabilities change accordingly. Support services in the form of direct practice with older adults might include:
- Case management – assisting clients to access resources like public benefits (Medicare, Medicaid) and needed health services
- Individual therapy for older adults – assisting clients in identifying biopsychosocial needs and supporting clients in meeting them
- Group therapy for older adults – facilitating support groups that focus on issues relevant to aging clients like life course transitions, dealing with loss, loss of independence, and reflecting on life accomplishments
- Accompaniment – assisting clients in daily activities like grocery shopping or doctor’s visits and providing human connection to older adults who might otherwise be isolated
Programming and Administration in Care Communities
Many older adults live in some form of care community that offer services and residential options to meet the range of needs of the aging population. Depending on the client and family circumstances, older adults might be cared for at home by family members with the support of a nurse from a care community, or live full-time in a residential center such as an assisted living facility or hospice care center. Social workers can take on a variety of roles in care communities of all kinds, applying their programmatic, administration, and clinical skills to the aging populations connected to these communities. These options might include:
- Designing interventions and programming for older adults living in residential centers, such as art and movement therapy, support groups, nutrition plans, etc.
- Ensuring residents have access to other needed forms of support, including health services and medical insurance
- Managing staff members and interns in care communities and providing clinical supervision
- Conducting needs assessments and designing treatment plans for care community residents
- Implementing programs for older adults who reside in care communities
- Leading or directing care communities in administrative roles
Supporting Families throughout the Life Course
Gerontological social workers should also expect to work with the families and friends of older adults, to help them understand the aging process and how they can be of support. Families and friends of older adults often need support themselves as well, especially if they are in the position of caring for an aging relative. There are many ways in which gerontological social workers can work with the families of aging clients, and engage the broader public in understanding the needs of the aging population, such as:
- Providing psychoeducation surrounding issues of aging, such as preparing for loss and understanding dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
- Supporting family members as they go through transitions with aging relatives like moving into caretaking roles, or moving a family member into a care community
- Working with families to support older adults and relieve care burden
- Assisting families in working together in end of life processes, such as creating a family legacy and executing a will
- Providing counseling services to families who have experienced the loss of an aging family member
The work of a gerontological social worker may extend beyond these roles. Many social workers employed in the gerontological field focus on macro-level policy issues through advocacy and research. For social work graduates looking to employ social work skills and perspectives with the aging population, a career as a gerontological social worker offers a diverse array of opportunities and settings in which to make a difference in the lives of individuals at the end of the life course.