The Aging Population Means More Jobs for Geriatric Social Workers

There is a great need for geriatric social workers to serve the growing population of seniors in North America. Social work with older people offers an interesting career -- with many opportunities.

The Council on Social Work Education says that by 2030, 20 percent of the population will be age 65 and older.

The current number of geriatric social workers is "grossly inadequate," says Linda Krogh Harootyan. She is the deputy director of the Gerontological Society of America. "There are over 600,000 practicing social workers in the United States. [But] few are specifically trained for geriatric practice."

She adds that the National Institute on Aging projects a need for 40,000 to 50,000 geriatric social workers now. That need will grow to 50,000 to 70,000 by 2020. "Less than 10 percent of that number are currently available," she says.

Harootyan also points out that more social work teachers are needed. "[There is a] scarcity of faculty with the training and knowledge needed to teach the next generation about the health and social service needs of older adults. This is a major challenge to be addressed."

Opportunities for Geriatric Social Workers

Most of the growth in the social work field will be in geriatric social work, says James Lubben. He is a professor of social welfare and urban planning at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Many more jobs will open for geriatric social workers in various fields, Lubben says. "Health-care-related jobs will continue to grow," he says. But he feels that quality of life for older people will start to become as important as medical care.

Another important role of social workers is to help with changes during the older years. Lorraine Mercer is a university instructor of gerontology. "I see a growing opportunity for...working with older adults and families as they go through transitions in life," she says.

She points to issues like grandchildren, adult children returning home, retirement and illness. "And particularly, admission to 'homes,'" she says. "Family relationships continue to be of significant value in [today's] culture. And social workers are needed to help support families amidst transitions."

Another growing area for social workers is providing links to community services. This helps families give adequate care to elders. These links include senior centers, meals-on-wheels, legal services and visiting nurses.

"Aging-savvy social workers serve as 'navigators,'" says Harootyan. "[They] enable older adults and families to understand and choose among the array of health and social services."

Taking Advantage of the Possibilities

Education is the key.

First, all social workers need a bachelor's degree. But if you want to do clinical social work, you need a master's degree in social work. A master's is also needed for working in education, policy planning and supervisory positions.

"The choice as to which is best for you depends on what you want to do after graduation," says Gloria Gutman. She is the president of the International Association of Gerontology.

"New programs are springing up every year in universities and colleges. [They] want to be a part of the 'age wave' that is sweeping the world."

Many teachers and social workers believe that it is important for every student and professional to have some training in this area.

"Instead of more gerontologists, we need people in every field with an interest in serving this population," says Robert Long. He is an associate professor of social work at Salisbury University in Maryland. "In [our] system, it is possible for students in any major to get a minor or a certificate in gerontology."

In Long's course on social work, students look at many issues. These include housing, medical care, recreation and education for older people. They also study their social and emotional needs. "Direct care work in nursing homes is an important function. But it is not the only way to work in this field," Long says.

In fact, businesses are starting to hire people with knowledge about aging. Banks and investment firms are now hiring geriatric social workers. So are corporate elder care firms, employee assistance programs, group medical and dental practices, insurance companies, legal firms and many others.

The Outlook

Without a doubt, older people and their families will need services and support. This will come from professionals like geriatric social workers and other experts with knowledge of aging.

"Never before has the demand for geriatric social workers reached such urgency," says Lubben. And, he adds, it is a very rewarding and creative career.


American Geriatrics Society
Offers resources related to health-care professions in geriatrics

Association for Gerontology Education in Social Work
This site provides leadership and assistance to social work educational programs and professionals

Gerontological Society of America
Information on geriatrics training and resources

National Association of Social Workers
The largest professional association of social workers in the United States

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