Social Work and Gerontology: The Profession’s Trailblazers

For the last seven years and for the next 12 going forward almost 10,000 people are celebrating their 65th birthday every day. Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964 are creating a boom in the field of gerontology. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) projects the need for 70,000 social workers with a specialty in gerontology.

At the same time, an NASW survey has found that although nearly 75% of social workers are already involved in some capacity with older adults, most have no formal preparation in working with clients in that stage of life.

The professional organization suggests that gerontological social workers “must be knowledgeable about unique legislation, policies and social programs that affect older adults. In addition, they must be knowledgeable about the aging process and the issues older adult and their caregivers face, adept at accessing resources for clients, and strong advocates who champion their rights.”

In addition to care management of an aging population, gerontological social workers might soon find themselves lobbying Congress for legislation that addresses the future needs of aging Baby Boomers. That might include assuring the solvency of Social Security and Medicare, and adopting the 2013 recommendations of the federal Commission on Long-term Care, centered on the need for a more responsive, integrated, person-centered, and fiscally sustainable long-term service and support delivery system.

Katherine Leith, Research Assistant Professor at USC College of Social Work, and the Director of the Certificate of Graduate Studies in Gerontology, says providing social work services for older adults is different than for younger adults. Although the fundamental issue of economic insufficiency is common among social work clients, older adults present compounding issues related to aging, such as chronic disease and diminished mental acuity.

For example, she says, an older adult living in poverty might also struggle with an impairment that affects their Activities of Daily Living. A social worker must build a knowledge base of the resources in the community that could keep the client in their home and avoid institutionalization.

Social workers can develop a knowledge base of the type and availability of specific community resources through professional experience, but they need further education to understand the research supporting which interventions work, according to Dr. Leith. “There are a lot of things out there advertising that they can make life easier for older adults that don’t really work,” she said.

Enrollment in gerontology programs is failing to keep pace with demand, not only in social work but in other fields as well. Leaders in social work and in health care institutions nationwide are concerned about serious shortages in the necessary expertise to care for this massive population of aging adults for the next four decades.

Likewise, students in the USC social work program are not flocking to this burgeoning discipline. There are many theories about why this is true, but one that is beyond dispute is that most students are young. They may not be exposed to the wisdom of the aged and may harbor misconceptions about what aging is about. As Baby Boomers have begun to demonstrate, getting older and becoming old are not the same thing.

Katherine Leith notes that some of her students in the gerontology certificate program are returning professionals. “Once people get a little older and have aging parents they become much more attuned to it,” she said.

Lack of interest in aging may soon change as the tidal wave of Boomers crashes upon the marketplace and spikes demand for more social workers with expertise in gerontology. As this unusual generation changes the rules of elder life, social workers will be on the front lines, trailblazing new service delivery systems.

Note from the LGC Director: While there is currently no graduate program offered at the Lowcountry Graduate Center that specifically focuses on gerontology, we are eager to hear from readers if such a program as USC’s certificate program should be made available. If you would be interested in enrolling in this program in the Lowcountry, contact me at mullernj@lowcountrygradcenter.org or 843.953.6400.