For most people, when you say “social worker” you think of someone working with children and families — your first thought might even be an incorrect image of an overworked caseworker removing children from their homes and placing them in foster care.
However, there is a much wider range of opportunity for social workers outside of the realm of children and families. In fact, social workers are committed to helping all people in need. They help people at all ages and stages of life access the services and tools they need to thrive and live healthy lives. Yet there is one population in dire need of help, and a shortage of qualified workers could mean that many people do not gain access to the services that they need.
As the population ages, seniors have a greater need than ever for help managing the social, financial, and health issues that come with old age. Whether it’s someone facing a chronic disease who needs daily medical care, or someone facing the isolation that can come from the loss of family and friends over time, the range of services required by older adults is vast, and there’s a great need for social workers trained in gerontology and aging issues. Add in trends such as the increase in elder abuse and the desire of many people to “age in place” rather than in assisted living or nursing care facilities, and the need for qualified social workers becomes even more apparent.
So how do you get involved in geriatric social work? The first step is understanding what social workers do.
Geriatric Social Work Overview
Geriatric or gerontological social workers are focused on meeting the physical and social needs of older adults. They can be found in a wide variety of settings, such as hospitals, state agencies, service and referral agencies (i.e., agencies on aging), rehabilitation centers, nursing homes and assisted living facilities, and private practice.
Depending on the agency and the specialty of the social worker, some of the services that one might provide include:
· Referral to necessary services, including health care, financial advice and assistance, and legal services.
· Functional evaluations to determine eligibility for services.
· Mental health evaluation and counseling.
· Discharge planning after hospitalizations.
· Support and advocacy in matters of health, money, and social lives. For example, social workers are trained to identify signs of elder abuse and take action when necessary.
Social workers often work closely with other professionals, including health care providers, attorneys, and financial advisors, as well as families, to ensure that older adults are well-cared for and have everything they need.
Becoming a Geriatric Social Worker
At minimum, to begin a career in geriatric social work you need to earn at least a bachelor’s degree, in a field such as social work, psychology, or gerontology. In some cases, nurses have moved into social work roles as well. However, every state requires social workers to be licensed, and that means earning a master’s in human services or social work and passing the licensing exam. In addition, to be eligible to take the social work examination, you generally need to complete a minimum number of supervised practicum hours; in most states, the minimum is 3,000 hours, but the specifics vary.
In any case, you will be expected to have specialized knowledge of the issues that affect older adults, including mental and physical health issues. You will generally complete coursework not only related to working with the elderly themselves, but also in social policies and current issues relating to older people, ethics, and gerontological research.
The number of people age 65 or older is expected to reach 72 million by the year 2030, comprising 20 percent of the U.S. population. This means that going forward, there will be a wide array of opportunities for gerontological social workers. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistic predicts demand to increase by 19 percent, which is faster than average.
Salaries vary for jobs in this field. The BLS reports a median annual salary of about $44,000, with the highest earners topping out at around $57,000 per year. Earning potential varies according to the employer, region, and level of experience, with those working in private practice or for private agencies earning the most.
Geriatric social work is a rewarding and growing field. If you have the urge to help, but aren’t sure you want to work with children, you have other options — and senior citizens need your help.