Demographics in the United States are rapidly changing as the sizable baby boomer generation ages and retires, creating a higher demand for support services for older adults. Since the biopsychosocial needs of individuals change as they progress through the life course, the health and human services sectors are preparing themselves for an influx of older adults who require specialized services and care. For social workers, the growing aging population in the country provides increased job opportunities for gerentological social workers. Gerentology is the study of old age and aging processes, and has been incorporated as a specialization option in many Master of Social Work programs across the nation.
For social work students interested in responding to the unique needs of an aging population, a specialization in Older Adults or Gerentological Social Work is a natural choice. The following are some of the key areas of study included in the Older Adults specialization.
Life Transitions and the Aging Process
Much of the theoretical coursework in the Older Adults specialization will focus on supporting individuals as they go through life transitions and the natural aging process. Students will gain an extensive understanding of life-course theories, developmental stages of older individuals, and mental/behavioral and physical health considerations relevant to the aged. Due to the natural transition from life to death that all older adults eventually experience and usually begin to prepare for, theories related to grief and loss may also be addressed. Spirituality is often a topic that is discussed in relation to older adults and end of life, so students should expect to engage with a broad array of spiritual perspectives that may assist practitioners in supporting older adults as they approach the end of life, or make meaning of the loss of close loved ones.
Health Needs of Older Adults
Medical advancements have allowed us to prolong human life well into advanced years, but even so, older adults are expected to have different and more complex health needs than younger adults. This often means that older adults require more intensive medical care, including specific courses of medications or treatments. Social work students preparing to work with aging adults must be adequately informed about their changing and growing health needs, and best practices for supporting older clients in meeting those needs. A specialization in Gerentological Social Work or Older Adults will equip students with the knowledge and skills needed to support, advocate for, and engage with older populations in healthcare settings or in the home. Thus, practical information, such as managing medications, accessing needed health services, and maintaining treatment regimens will be covered in this specialization.
Additionally, students will learn to attend to the mental and emotional health needs of older adults, who are often isolated in old age and need social connection. Thus, this specialization will provide a holistic perspective on how to effectively address the interconnected health needs of older adults to ensure that they are living as comfortably and well as possible into old age.
Social Policy for the Aging
As adults age, social policies relevant to this population come to play a greater role in their lives. Social policies that are particularly pertinent for the aging population include national-level policies, such as retirement benefits, Medicare, and disability benefits, as well as those specific to each individual or institution such as life insurance, nursing home services, hospice care, and will execution. These policies are often complex pieces of legislation with operational procedures that can be difficult to navigate and eligibility guidelines that are not easily understood. Social work students in the Older Adults specialization will learn the ins and outs of these social policies and benefits, and receive training in how to assist older adults in applying for and accessing benefits and services for which they are eligible.
Further, students will learn how to advocate for the needs of these populations by making policy recommendations to best accommodate their needs at the local, state, and national level.
Field Placement in a Gerentological Setting
Because nothing beats the experience of hands-on learning in the field, students in the Older Adult specialization are usually required to complete one or both field placements in a setting that primarily works with older adults. These internships might include hospitals, hospice care centers, nursing homes, Veteran’s centers, or other health and human services institutions that work directly with or influence policy on older adults.
Working with older adults can be a rewarding and enriching experience, as practitioners have the opportunity to make a difference for an individual in the last years of her/his life. For students interested in responding to the growing demand for gerentological social workers, a specialization in Older Adults is a worthwhile option.