For geriatric social workers, helping seniors navigate the perils of aging and maximize their quality of life provides deep satisfaction. Through direct counseling or by marshalling resources, these professionals empower the growing ranks of older Americans to live their later years to the fullest.
"Because of changing demographics and the booming older population, [geriatric] social work is one of the fastest-growing areas in social work," says Marla Berg-Weger, MSW, PhD, professor at the Saint Louis University School of Social Work.
By 2010, the nation will need 60,000 to 70,000 social workers to serve this group, according to National Institute on Aging data reported in "A Blueprint for the New Millennium," a 2001 report by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).
Opportunities in Many Settings
Geriatric social workers advise the elderly and their families about housing, transportation, long-term care and available support services. They also often run support groups for family caregivers.
While geriatric social workers are commonly employed in such settings as hospitals, nursing homes, adult day-care centers, senior centers and assisted-living centers, career opportunities are emerging in nontraditional settings as well. These include employee assistance programs, bank trust departments, law firms and insurance companies.
Other career paths include working with the courts in the area of adult protective services and for advocacy groups such as AARP chapters, the Gray Panthers and the Older Women's League. In addition, many entrepreneurial master's-educated social workers are starting their own businesses as private-practice geriatric case managers, helping families assess and develop care plans for aging relatives.
To Age with Dignity
St. Louis social work coordinator Diane Peterson, MSW, chose to work with the elderly after spending time with seniors during 18 months of physical therapy following a car accident. Touched by their kindness and support, Peterson abandoned plans for a career in Latin American art. Today, she works for PACE (Program of All Inclusive Care for the Elderly), a government program designed to help low- and middle-income seniors tap community resources so they can remain in their own homes.
"My greatest reward is restoring some quality of life to people who have lost it due to health problems or a living situation," Peterson says. "I'm able to help these people retain a sense of dignity and the essence of who they are."
Working with older people requires compassion, patience and perseverance. And when confronting difficult situations, such as family meetings to discuss the need for a transition in living arrangements, or uncomfortable topics, such as resolving safety issues or obtaining more assistance with daily living, social workers must blend kindness with directness.
"My master's-level training in counseling has given me the skills I need to handle family meetings and equipped me to speak in a way that is clear and direct but still receptive to the individual's needs," Peterson says.
Most geriatric social work positions require a bachelor's degree in social work (BSW) as a minimum, although a master's in social work (MSW) is becoming standard.
"All BSW degrees are general, although you can do fieldwork and take electives in gerontology," explains Anita Rosen, MSW, PhD, director of special projects for the CSWE.
Earning a degree from a CSWE-accredited program facilitates obtaining the required state license, says Berg-Weger, and usually gives grads advanced standing when they enter master's programs.
Of the approximately 170 CSWE-accredited master's programs, relatively few offer programs in gerontology. Candidates can opt for an MSW in healthcare or mental health, and spend the required 900 hours of supervised field instruction working with seniors.
Although regulations vary, all 50 states and the District of Columbia require some sort of licensure or registration. Certification by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) is voluntary, but worth the effort. Credentials open doors to higher-paying positions in healthcare and mental health facilities, and are especially important for those who want to go into private practice.
Not sure about working with the elderly? Give it a try as a volunteer at a local senior center (listed in the phone book under Services for Aging) or aging center at a local university or community college.
For more about career options in geriatric social work, visit the University of Washington School of Social Work. The NASW site has more about credentials and specialty certifications. The Geriatric Social Work Initiative lists scholarship opportunities under "Funding Opportunities."