Understanding Our Aging Society: Social Work Contributions

The aging of our society, both in the United States and globally, demands an increased focus on aging within the social work profession and the preparation of more social workers skilled in working with older people and their families. This page highlights aging research across many domains, identifies gaps in knowledge, and makes recommendations for future research.

What is gerontological social work research?

Social work researchers address:

  • Financial well-being
  • Family care-giving
  • Mental health
  • The health consequences of aging
  • Kinship care
  • Care management
  • Life roles and relationships
  • End of life care
  • Living arrangements
  • Autonomy
  • Prevention
  • Aging in diverse communities
  • Resource usage
  • Service delivery structures

The research foci are at the individual, family, group, agency and community levels, and address social work interventions; social workers as members of interdisciplinary teams; descriptive studies of client and caregiver characteristics; and issues related to the social work labor market.

Who funds gerontological social work research?

Support for gerontological social work research comes from many federal agencies, including several institutes at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the Administration on Aging (AoA), the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA), and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Additional support also comes from national foundations (e.g., the John A. Hartford Foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Soros Foundation); state and local agencies; community agencies and foundations; and academic institutions. Click here for more information on foundation-supported projects.

Research Examples

The National Institutes of Health funded several aging relevant studies:

  • Kathleen Ell, Multifaceted Home Care Depression Program (NIMH) 5R24MH061700
  • Charles Emlet, HIV Stigma in a Population of Adults Age 50 and Over (NIMH) 1R03MH069334
  • Rosalie Kane, Family Care of the Oldest Old (NIA) 5R01AG011133
  • Nancy Morrow-Howell, Community Long Term Care Service And Outcomes-Burden Of Depression (NIA) 1R01AG017451
  • Gregory Paveza, Aggression and Violence In Community Based Alzheimer’s Disease Families (NIA) 1R01AG014412
  • Sheryl Zimmerman, End of Life Care in Residential Care and Nursing Homes (NIA) 5R01AG018967

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) funded:

  • Ronald Toseland, Health Education in an HMO: Effectiveness and Efficiency (AHRQ) 5R01HS008641

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) funded:

  • Rosalie Kane, Measurement, Indicators, and Improvement of the Quality of Life in Nursing Homes (CMS)

Aging research intersects with research that can also be considered within other fields of social work practice. Previous research Web pages on cancer and mental health include aging research examples.

Berkman, B., Walker, S, Bonander, E., & Holmes, W. (1992). Early unplanned readmissions to social work of elderly patients: factors predicting who needs follow-up services. Social Work in Health Care. 17 (4): 103-19.

Social Work Summit on Palliative and End-of-Life Care. (2002, March). Social workers set goals to strengthen care for the dying and the bereaved.

Gilbar, O., Lowenstein, A., Naravitz, A. & Steiner, M. (2001). Elderly cancer patients and elders who do not have cancer: do they differ in quality of life? Journal of Gerontological Social Work. 35 (3), 3–16.

Ell, K., Vourlekis, B., Nissly, J., Padgett, D., Pineda, D., Sarabia, O., et. al (2002). Integrating mental health and abnormal cancer screening follow-up: An intervention to reach low-income women. Community Mental Health Journal. 38 (4), 311–315 .

Foundation-Supported Projects

In recent years several foundations have made major investments in supporting social work research, in supporting the development of social work research agendas, and testing social work-led interventions.

The John A. Hartford Foundation (JAHF)


  • The John A. Hartford Foundation has made investments in several domains in regard to gerontological social work research. These include support for 40 faculty scholars through the Faculty Scholars Program in Geriatric Social Work. The Foundation also supports a program to support doctoral studies in aging. For more information on these programs, which are cultivating faculty leaders in gerontological education and research, visit: http://www.geron.org/Hartford/socialwork.htm
  • The Hartford Foundation, through the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) ( http://socialwork.nyam.org/resources/index.html#cost ) supported an effort to analyze social work research to examine the cost effectiveness of social work interventions. The Studies of the Efficacy of Social Work Services in Aging with a Focus on Cost Outcomes: Preliminary Key Points and Information , identify current knowledge on effectiveness of social work services, and can be a helpful resource for policy-makers, educators, practitioners, and researchers.
  • The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), through its Strengthening Aging and Gerontology Education for Social Work (SAGE-SW) project, supported by JAHF, developed an important document, Blueprint for the New Millennium (http://www.cswe.org/sage-sw/resrep/blueprint.pdf) The blueprintidentified that gerontological social work research- particularly practice-based, outcome research- is very limited, and suggests a set of recommendations to address this issue. The SAGE-SW project also developed a set of 65 gerontological social work competencies ( http://www.cswe.org/sage-sw/resrep/competencyitems.htm), which provide a framework for the skills, knowledge, and values the profession should have to work with older persons and their families. These competencies provide domains for further research testing.
  • Burnette, Morrow-Howell and Chen, with support from JAHF, used a Delphi process to gather information from researchers and practitioners to develop a gerontological social work research agenda (see agenda setting).
  • JAHF also supported, the Social Work Labor Market: A First Look , by Michael C. Barth The report developed recommendations that can build on existing research to help the profession proactively influence the job market for social work practitioners. For more information, see: Barth, M. C. (2003). Social work labor market: A first look. Social Work , 48 (1) , 9–19.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation


The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE), and the Administration on Aging (AoA) are making an investment in social work research and social work- relevant plans and programs.

Kevin Mahoney of Boston College received a grant for the expansion of Cash and Counseling, a successful model program in which disabled Medicaid consumers decide for themselves how their personal assistance needs will be met. Program participants use the allocation to purchase their own care-with the option of hiring friends, family members, or others-instead of receiving it from an agency. They can also use their budgets to modify their homes or vehicles or to purchase a range of items-from chair lifts to touch lamps-to help them live independently. Consulting and bookkeeping services are available to help participants weigh their options and keep up with required paperwork.

Atlantic Philanthropies


Atlantic Philanthropies is funding the Institute for Geriatric Social Work (IGSW) at Boston University ( http://www.bu.edu/igsw/ ), to address the critical need for research that documents the effectiveness of geriatric social work practice and interventions. IGSW will conduct at least one randomized clinical trial in a health care setting to demonstrate the effectiveness of targeted geriatric social work interventions. State-of-the-science meetings will be held to refine research designs, review research findings, and identify appropriate interventions to study.

Soros Foundation


The Soros Foundation completed funding for the Project on Death in America Social Work Leadership Development awards. The awards supported several cohorts of social workers, to "promote innovative research and training projects that reflect a collaboration between schools of social work and practice sites that will advance the ongoing development of social work practice, education, and training in the care of the dying.”

Gerontological Social Work Research Agenda

Early on in the initiation of the Hartford Geriatric Scholars Program, the profession was challenged to identify a gerontological social work research agenda. Denise Burnette ( Columbia University ) and Nancy Morrow-Howell ( Washington University ) launched a Web-based Delphi method input process to get input from practitioners and researchers in the setting of such an agenda. The report of the priorities identified by the researchers is reviewed in Setting priorities for gerontological social work research. The Gerontologist 43(6) , 828-838). (Burnette, D., Morrow-Howell, N., & Chen, L. (2003).

The agenda setting process identified priorities in regard to intervention research (developing and testing psychosocial interventions across populations and conditions was the highest priority item); housing and living arrangements; service delivery; detection and assessment; family caregiving; health-mental health; and workforce (p. 836). The social work research priorities fit well with key issues highlighted in the NIA Strategic Plan, especially around the following priorities: Improve health and quality of life of older people; reduce health disparities among older persons and population; and enhance resources to support high quality research.

Related Resources

Several key government reports address issues relevant to social work and aging research priorities and help to frame opportunities to support social work research.

  • The Office of the Inspector General, Department of Health and Human Services, issued a 2003 report on Psychosocial Services in Skilled Nursing Facilities identifying key gaps in services, and suggesting areas for further study.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Injury Research Agenda(http://www.cdc.gov/ncipc/pub-res/research_agenda/agenda.htm) highlights areas of study that address intentional injury (e.g., elder abuse) and unintentional injury (e.g., falls).
  • The National Institute of Mental Health’s National Advisory Mental Health Council recently released a report titled, Mental Health for a Lifetime: Research on the Mental Health Needs of Older Americans. The report recommended increased attention to mental health issues and aging, recognizing the need for research to promote mental health for the growing proportion of older Americans, and to better understand the needs of individuals living with mental illness as they grow older.
  • The National Institute on Aging’s research plan on minority aging, Review of Minority Aging Research at the NIA.
  • NIA Strategic Plan includes goals of improving health and quality of life for older people by preventing or reducing age related diseases, disorders, and disability. Other goals include maintaining health and functioning, enhanding older adults societal roles and interpersonal supports, and reducing social isolation. All of the above are relevant to social work research.

NIA’s behavioral and social science research interests include:

  • Health Disparities
  • Aging Minds
  • Increasing Health Expectancy
  • Health, Work, and Retirement
  • Interventions and Behavior Change
  • Genetics, Behavior, and the Social Environment
  • The Burden of Illness and the Efficiency of Health Systems

John A. Hartford Foundation Faculty Scholars Program in Geriatric Social Work (1999-2003)

2003 Scholars

Maria Aranda, PhD
University of Southern California
Research Topic: A Sociocultural Stress and Coping Model for Mental Health Outcomes Among Older Latinos in Long Term Care: Contributors to and Mediators of Depression in a US-Born and Immigrant Sample

Li-Mei Chen, PhD
University of Houston
Research Topic: Aging in Place: Exploring the Impact of a Texas Waiver Policy on the Health and Well-Being of Older Assisted Living Facility Residents

Richard Francoeur, PhD
Columbia University
Research Topic: Masked Depression in Diabetes with Comorbid Vascular Disease

Chang-ming Hsieh, PhD
University of Illinois at Chicago
Research Topic: Using Client Satisfaction to Improve Case Management Services for the Elderly

Karen Lincoln, PhD
University of Washington
Research Topic: Race Differences in Social Relations Among Older Adults

Sandra Magana, PhD
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Research Topic: Latino and African American Aging Caregivers

Carmen Morano, PhD
University of Maryland
Research Topic: A Longitudinal Design

Testing the Effectiveness of a Culturally Informed Psychoeducational Intervention with African American AD Caregivers

Mitsuko Nakashima, PhD
University of Maryland
Research Topic: Japanese and Korean Elders’ Use of Traditional and Western Health Services in the U.S. : Cultural Values, Beliefs and Behaviors in Health Maintenance

Philip Rozario, PhD
Adelphi University School of Social Work
Research Topic: Successful Aging with Chronic Illness: Examining Activities and Strategies in Maintaining Well-Being and Personal Meaning in Later Life

2002 Faculty Scholars

Amy Ai, PhD
University of Washington
Research Topic: The Long-Term Effects of Spirituality and Positive Attitude on the Health and Adjustment of Older Adults Following Cardiac Surgery

Elizabeth Essex, PhD
University of Illinois at Chicago
Research Topic: Older Case Management Clients and Younger Family Members in Need of Care

Zvi Gellis, PhD
State University of New York at Albany
Research Topic: A Preliminary Evaluation of the Depression Screening and Treatment Program (DSTP) for Elderly Home Care Clients

Lydia Li, PhD
University of Michigan
Research Topic: Changes in Disability Among Older Blacks and Whites: A Study of Elderly Participants in Michigan ‘s Medicaid Waiver Program

Elizabeth Lightfoot, PhD
University of Minnesota
Research Topic: An Exploratory Study on Serving Older Persons Through Independent Living Centers

Peter Maramaldi, PhD
University of Utah
Research Topic: An Exploratory Comparison of Colorectal Cancer Survivors’ Health Beliefs and Diagnostic Experiences

Jong Won Min, PhD
San Diego State University
Research Topic: Acculturation, Traditional Values, Culture and Long-Term Decision-Making Among Latino Elderly

Holly Nelson-Becker, PhD
University of Kansas
Research Topic: Spirituality and Religion: An Exploration of Factors in the Health and Well-Being of Older Adults

Michelle Putnam, PhD
Washington University of St. Louis
Research Topic: Explorations into Coalition Building: How Aging and Disability Service Networks are Partnering to Meet the Needs of Persons Aging with Disabilities

Stephanie A. Robert, MSW, PhD
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Research Topic: Research and Evaluation of Family Care: Wisconsin ‘s Long-Term Care Redesign Pilot Program

Deborah Waldrop, PhD
State University of New York at Buffalo
Research Topic: At the Eleventh Hour: Psychosocial Factors that Contribute to Delayed Hospice Care for Terminally Ill Older Adults

2001 Faculty Scholars

Patricia Brownell, PhD
Fordham University, New YorkResearch Topic: Evaluation of the First Elder Abuse Shelter in the U.S.

Sandra Sue Butler, MSW, PhD
University of Maine , OronoResearch Topic: Evaluation of the Impact of the Senior Companion Program on Elders and Companions

Sherry M. Cummings, MSW, PhD
University of Tennessee , NashvilleResearch Topic: Evaluation of an Interdisciplinary Geriatric Mental Health Team

Charles A. Emlet, ACSW, PhD
University of Washington , TacomaResearch Topic: Exploration of Sources of Social Support for Older Adults With HIV/AIDS

Betty J. Kramer, PhD
University of Wisconsin , MadisonResearch Topic: Study of Providers of End of Life Care for Frail Elders in Managed Care.

Hong Li, MSW, PhD
University of Illinois , Urbana

Research Topic: Examination of the Adequacy of Informal and Formal Services Used by Rural Demented Elders .

Yat-Sang (Terry) Lum, PhD
University of Minnesota , St. Paul
Research Topic: Analysis of Factors Influencing Well-being of Nursing Home Residents

Ailee Moon, PhD
UCLA, Los Angeles
Research Topic: A Crosscultural Study of Factors that Influence Practice Responses to Elder Abuse

Michael W. Parker, DSW
University of Alabama , Tuscaloosa

Research Topic: A Study of Long Distance Caregiving Among U.S. Army Officers

Tazuko Shibusawa, MSW, PhD
Columbia University , New YorkResearch Topic: A Comparative Study of Partner Abuse Experienced by Older Black, Latina, and Caucasian Women

1999 Faculty Scholars

Margaret Adamek, PhD
Associate Professor
Indiana University School of Social Work
Research project: Barriers to Treating Geriatric Depression in Long Term Care: A Research Update .

Denise Burnette, PhD
Associate Professor
Columbia University School of Social Work
Research project: Self-Care of Chronic Health Conditions: The Experience of Urban, African American Elders Self-Care.

Letha Chadiha, PhD
Associate Professor
George Warren Brown School of Social Work
Washington University in St. Louis
Research project: Beyond Coping: An Empowerment Intervention with African Americans Caregivers of Dependent Low Income Elders .

Nancy Kropf, PhD
Associate Professor
University of Georgia School of Social Work
Research project: “Let’s Talk”: An Intervention for Grandparents Raising Grandchildren .

Ji Seon Lee, PhD
Assistant Professor
Fordham University Graduate School of Social Services
Research project: Social Work Services and Patient Outcomes in Home Health Care .

Philip McCallion, PhD
Assistant Professor
State University of New York at Albany School of Social Welfare
Research project: An Evaluation of the FDCE Program for Spouse Caregivers of Persons with Dementia .

Matthias Naleppa, PhD
Assistant Professor
Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work
Research project: Evaluation of Geriatric Task-Centered Case Management .

Cynthia Poindexter, PhD
Assistant Professor
Boston University School of Social Work
Research project: HIV-Infected and HIV-Affected Elders: Experiences, strengths, and needs.

Stephanie Robert, PhD
Assistant Professor
University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Social Work
Research project: Examining Changes in Publicly-Funded Long Term Care Services under Family Care-Wisconsin’s Pilot Long Term Care Project .

Jeanette Semke, PhD
Associate Professor
University of Washington in Seattle School of Social Work
Research project: Community Residential Care for Older Adults with Neuropsychiatric Disorders

For more information about the JAHF Faculty Scholars Program, visit .gswi.org

This program is administered by the Gerontological Society of America (geron.org).
Linda K. Harootyan, program officer; Barbara Berkman, principal investigator