About 10,000 baby boomers in the United States will turn 65 every day until the year 2030, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2020, one in six Americans is projected to be age 65 and older.
That means up to 70,000 geriatric social workers will be needed to help address the aging needs of baby boomers.
Among their many roles, social workers are an important part in helping family caregivers of older adults navigate through health and mental health networks, according to the NASW Standards for Social Work Practice with Family Caregivers of Older Adults. It notes that social workers are well-positioned in helping older adults by using a strengths-based, person-in-environment approach.
The good news is there are efforts taking place to meet the anticipated demands of tomorrow’s aging workforce.
Geriatric Social Work Initiative
One example is the Geriatric Social Work Initiative, which has been funded by the John A. Hartford Foundation since 1999.
The initiative created the Council on Social Work Education’s National Center for Gerontology Social Work Education, or Gero-Ed Center. It promotes gerontology competencies in baccalaureate and master’s level social work programs nationwide to prepare students to enhance the health and well-being of older adults and their families.
Nancy Hooyman is the Hooyman Endowed Professor of Gerontology at the School of Social Work at the University of Washington. She, along with Darla Spence Coffey, president and CEO of CSWE, are the principal investigators for the Gero-Ed project.
Hooyman noted the Gero-Ed has worked with more than 400 social work programs throughout the country to infuse gerontology competencies and content either in their required generalist curriculum or specialized curriculum.
The initiative is making an impact, Hooyman said, noting that more than 75 percent of social workers end up working with older adults and their families in some capacity, even though they may think they will never do so.
“It is important that every graduate have a generalist level of competencies to work with older adults,” she said.
The overall impression of the curricular program has so far involved more than 1,000 faculty and an estimated 10,000 students. Of that number, 71 percent of students interacted with at least one older adult by the time they graduated. Faculty respondents said nearly 50 percent of graduates were prepared to work with older adults and families.
The Geriatric Social Work Initiative works in other positive ways as well. It promotes systems of coordinating care by helping social workers become better navigators for older adults and families when dealing with an array of health care options.
In addition, the initiative promotes faculty leaders in gerontological education and research through a faculty scholars program, a doctoral fellows program and a doctoral fellows pre-dissertation award program.
Hooyman said Congress needs to take measures to address the future needs of baby boomers by ensuring the solvency of Social Security, adopting the recommendations of the federal Commission on Long-Term Care, and supporting the workforce development recommendations of the 2008 Institute of Medicine report “Retooling for an Aging America: Building the Health Care Workforce.”
Social workers are in a strong position to address the social determinants of health and play critical roles of care coordination and transition management, she said.
Hartford Partnership Program for Aging Education
Another Geriatric Social Work Initiative is working to help create 70,000 “aging savvy” professional social workers by 2020.
The Hartford Partnership Program for Aging Education is led, in part, by Patricia Volland, who is the director of the Social Work Leadership Institute and a Visiting Distinguished Lecturer at Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College.
For the past 13 years, she has been the principal investigator for HPPAE, which works to recruit and train the next generation of social workers who specialize in aging by transforming how geriatric education is taught at MSW programs nationwide.
Fewer than 3 percent of social work students currently specialize in aging. The HPPAE model trains social workers to initiate and maintain improvements in long-term, community-based care for older adults and develops leaders in the field of aging to train future social work professionals.
It also uses partnerships between universities and community agencies, and promotes a competency-based curriculum and a rotational field education model that exposes students to the full spectrum of services for older adults.
All MSW programs already feature a field education model, and the HPPAE is often an innovative improvement upon this model, organizers said, which takes into account the trends and changes in the field of aging that require social workers to be more familiar with, and skilled at, navigating the different health care and social service systems available to older adults.
HPPAE has proved to be successful in recruiting students into aging in 72 graduate schools in 33 states, according to Volland. As of 2012, 2,600 MSW graduates have participated in the program.
“We are happy with how it has turned out. I am very pleased,” she said.
However, one of the key challenges for social workers who specialize in aging is salaries. Currently, the system lacks a financial initiative for social work students to specialize in geriatrics.
“I think we need to address the salary issue,” Volland said.
Among her hopes for the future is for social workers to be leaders in care coordination for older adults.
Social workers “should be leaders in recognizing and supporting baby boomers’ desires to age in place and remain independent,” she said. “We should be at the forefront of care coordination, which is part of the Affordable Care Act.”
Howard University Multi-disciplinary Gerontology Center
There are also social workers who are helping make a difference in geriatric social work at the local level.
One of them is Sandra Edmonds Crewe, a social work professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and director of the university’s Multidisciplinary Gerontology Center.
The center focuses on the strengths and needs of African-American and ethnic minority older persons and their families through professional development meetings, seminars and workshops, speaking engagements, and support groups. It also offers aging and caregiving resources and referrals.
The center is a member of the D.C. Senior Service Network, which comprises 20 community-based, nonprofit organizations that provide direct services to the district’s older citizens.
Crewe noted that some of her recent presentations on aging have taken place at hospitals, churches, nonprofit organizations and government agencies. Her topics of discussion have included the African-American caregiving experience, spirituality and caregiving, peers helping peers and cultural diversity among older adults.
“The MGC also hosts a grandparent caregiver support group that offers an opportunity for grandparents to exchange resources to assist them with caregiving and the emotional support needed to cope with the stressors related to caring for grandchildren,” said Crewe, who has authored the AARP Report on Grandparent Caregivers and served as an expert panelist to develop the NASW Standards for Social Work Practice with Family Caregivers of Older Adults.
“We are planning a second support group on campus for faculty and staff engaged in caregiving,” she added. “This group will provide the opportunity for faculty and staff to reduce stress of caregiving through a brown bag lunch exchange.”
Crewe is also on the board of the African American Alzheimer’s and Wellness Association and the Board of the American Association of Service Coordinators.
She noted that social work students at Howard are exposed to content that highlights the strengths of older persons as well as the risk factors related to wellness.
“Our students are prepared to work with older persons who are vulnerable to the cumulative effects of aging, ageism, racism and sexism,” Crewe said. “Also, students are invited to attend monthly seminars on various aging topics. Our students are encouraged to present at these seminars.”
Crewe said one of the most important things Congress and the president can do to help baby boomers as they age is to ensure that their health care needs are met.
“Full implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is a step in the right direction,” she said. “I am especially excited about the provisions that expand mental health care. This is greatly needed to ensure that the stigma and affordability do not conspire to create barriers to getting help.”
Dual Ph.D. in social work and gerontology
Another effort to expand the intersection of social work and gerontology is taking place at Wayne State University School of Social Work in Detroit.
Last fall, the school began enrolling students in its first-ever Ph.D. in social work with a dual title in gerontology program.
Two gerontology students applied to receive the dual title degree in its first semester, said Faith Pratt Hopp, associate professor at WSU’s School of Social Work. Several more students have expressed interest in the program as well.
The dual degree aims to build capacity for social work faculty and researchers trained in geriatrics who can promote evidence-based practices and serve as role models for future generations of social workers specializing in the field.
“We are very excited about the opportunity available through this program to prepare researchers and scholars to contribute to gerontological knowledge, practice, and policy,” said Hopp. “This new program will help social workers build on their knowledge of practice with older adults to strengthen their research knowledge and competencies. This program increases social workers’ access to Wayne State University’s accumulated knowledge for helping urban communities address the challenges of the diverse and rapidly growing population of older adults.”