Focus on Gerontology: Managing the Aging Baby Boomers

By Peter Craig

elder patient receiving help with paperwork

The aging baby boomer population is reaching critical mass. In 2020, according to the Census Bureau, that group numbered some 73 million—the second-largest segment of the U.S. population after Millennials—with 55.8 million of boomers, or 16.8% of the U.S. population, being age 65 or over. By 2030, all boomers will have hit 65 and their share of the population will be around 20%.

In the face of this dramatic surge in older Americans—disparagingly referred to as the “Gray Tsunami”—there is an enormous need for social workers, and lots of job opportunities. The challenge has been getting more social work students interested. “Students generally don’t come into social work thinking they can work with older adults,” says Dr. Susanny J. Beltran, assistant professor, University of Central Florida School of Social Work. “They think about trauma, about children, about police work, maybe policy work—the popular notions of what social workers do.” In fact, the total number of elder-focused social work students in the U.S. has often been below 5%.

Schooling in Elder Care

The joint goals in elder-care education at many social work schools have been: (1) trying to increase the number of students focusing on older adults, and (2) giving all students some aging-related content, says Dr. Nancy Kusmaul, associate professor, University of Maryland-Baltimore County School of Social Work, whose own interest in working with older adults stemmed from early experience. “I was a kid who hung out with my great-grandmother at family gatherings. She and I made pasta together and played cards. I have good associations with that.”

AGESW President Nancy Kusmaul with 2023 award winners

All social workers will eventually encounter older adults and their challenges, points out Kusmaul, whose school offers such electives as the BSW-level “Contemporary Issues, Cultures and Social Work Practices in Aging.” “Any student who’s going to work in addictions or even in child welfare is going to encounter older adults and needs to have some knowledge of that population and their problems, and the services they need, too.” Pictured at right: At the Gerontological Society of America annual meeting’s AGESW reception last November in Tampa: AGESW President Nancy Kusmaul (far left) with 2023 award winners.

With this in mind, many social work schools have been instilling older-adult material across the curriculum. For instance, at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, “it’s about making sure the foundation courses have some representation about gerontology and individuals who are living with serious illness, and understanding of how to work with individuals, families, systems, and people from different disciplines and professions,” says Dr. Karla T. Washington, LCSW, associate professor of medicine, Division of Palliative Medicine, Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

alzheimer association brain bus

Gerontological social work education scored a big win in 1998 when the John A. Hartford Foundation began funding social work schools and organizations in such areas as aging-related internships, faculty training and curriculum expansion. By 2000 the foundation had helped launch the Geriatric Social Work Education Consortium, involving eight Southern California schools, with a 10-year grant that supported work by MSW students, doctoral students and faculty scholars. And by 2004 the foundation had given grants to the Council on Social Work Education to improve the geriatric teaching competence of 600-plus instructors and help develop geriatric curricula at 67 U.S. social work schools. Pictured at left: Last summer, the Alzheimer’s Association’s “Brain Bus” visited the University of Central Florida campus to help expand social work students’ knowledge regarding dementia, including warning signs and resources.

Beyond the Classroom

university of washington elder focused speaker series

Along with such across-the-curriculum and train-the-trainer approaches, many social work schools still offer electives and certificates focused on older adults. Examples include the University of California, Berkeley’s MSW course “Direct Practice in Aging Settings” and “A Graduate Certificate in Aging”; Washington University in St. Louis’ “Interprofessional Practice in Hospice and Palliative Care” (MSW); the University of Washington’s “Multigenerational Practice with Children, Families, and Elders” (MSW); and the University of Central Florida’s “Social Work Practice with Loss & Life’s Transitions” (BSW) and “Interventions with Older Adults and Their Families” (MSW). Pictured at right: The University of Washington School of Social Work has been offering its elder-focused speaker series for eight years.

But also important, social work educators say, is working to attract and train students outside the classroom. The University of Washington has a lecture series called “Innovations in Aging” that began as on-site brown bag sessions before moving to Zoom during the pandemic, attracting students and even faculty from all over the university, says series co-founder Wendy Lustbader, MSW, School of Social Work clinical associate professor. Subjects have ranged from running older-adult group sessions to assisting with late-life personality disorders.

The University of Central Florida is part of the national Perfect Pair program, where college students are paired with older adults as companions and in return benefit from mentoring. And the Association for Gerontology Education in Social Work (AGESW), which publishes the “Journal of Gerontological Social Work,” strongly supports networking among geriatric studies students and faculty. Its Pre-Dissertation Fellowship Program brings 10 to 12 first- and second-year social work PhD students together to build connections and train in research and teaching methods, says the University of Maryland’s Kusmaul, who is the current AGESW president.

With the overall college and university student population starting to shrink and the opportunities in social work practice continuing to expand, will there be enough social workers focused on older adults? “I think we’re at a place where we can really grow the field because, first of all, there’s so much need,” says Dr. Angie Perone, assistant professor, UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare, and director of the Center for Advanced Study of Aging Services. “But also, because of the pandemic, we had new, very public conversations about ageism and about the unique health-care needs of older adults.” There’s definitely more interest and understanding now, adds Perone.

Gerontological Social Work: Key Research

Research on social work with older adults has run the gamut. For instance, at the University of California-Berkeley School of Social Welfare, assistant professor Dr. Angie Perone, also director of the Center for Advanced Study of Aging Services, has focused her practice-ready gerontological research on such areas as “culturally responsive” assessment tools, ways to change or create policy, and equitable aging.

In another part of the country, Dr. Cara L. Wallace, Dorothy A. Votsmier Endowed Chair and professor, Saint Louis University Valentine School of Nursing, and Dr. Stephanie Wladkowski, Larry & Patty Benz Professor and associate professor of social work, Bowling Green State University, have partnered to study “live discharge,” where the condition of a hospice patient stabilizes or even improves, making that person no longer eligible for hospice services. This unexpected development can actually be quite stressful for family caregivers and is where social workers can be particularly helpful.

“When I think about some of the best (palliative care) research, the most innovative such research happening in the country, social workers are among the people who are leading that work,” says Dr. Karla T. Washington, LCSW, associate professor of medicine, Division of Palliative Medicine, Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Below are samples of innovative research on elder and end-of-life care:

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