“The graying of America” has been a popular phrase in recent years as the number of older people continues to grow. Statistics project that by 2030, Americans 65 and older will actually outnumber their younger counterparts.
With the aging of the "baby boomer" generation and the lengthening of life spans, both the number and proportion of older people are rapidly increasing. Many of the health related problems that contributed to decreased life span have been combated. Yet, this same achievement presents new challenges in meeting the social, environmental, psychological, economic and health care needs of older adults.
These shifting demographics have created a greater demand for professionals with specialized knowledge and expertise in aging. Social work is unique among the health and mental health professions in that it considers the physical, mental, and social aspects of individuals—an approach that is critical to providing services to older adults and their families.
Gerontological social workers, who make up about 5% of the nation’s half a million social workers, can help older adults and their families maintain well-being, overcome problems and achieve maximum potential during later life. Social workers serve as “advocates” for older people, providing a vital link between older individuals and the services they need. Indeed, a key function of gerontological social workers is to promote independence, autonomy and dignity.
Social workers provide services in a variety of settings, including hospitals, nursing homes, hospices, adult day health centers, independent and assisted living communities, public agencies and increasingly, in people’s homes.
Here is an example:
Mrs. Mott lives in an unsafe neighborhood and feels depressed and isolated. She does not attend activities at a local senior center because she is afraid to leave her own home. Her family is concerned about Mrs. Mott’s isolation and tries to visit when they can, but they are busy with work and taking care of their own children. Her family would like help her relocate to a safer environment but cannot afford to do so.
A social worker from a local community agency is consulted. He meets with Mrs. Mott to help and conducts a thorough assessment. Together, they discuss her living arrangement, social supports and her perceived barriers to living independently in her community. With Mrs. Mott’s permission, the social worker also meets with her family to offer ways in which the family can assist with helping her become less isolated while providing options for housing and other concrete resources such as low-cost transportation and volunteer companions.
Here is another example:
Mrs. Tyson is a 78-year-old woman who is caring for her 81-year-old husband; he is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Lately he is becoming more agitated and combative and the woman’s children suggest she place him in a nursing home. Although she eventually does, she feels guilt-ridden and depressed about her decision.
A social worker is consulted and visits Mrs. Tyson in her home to assess the situation. The social worker provides supportive counseling to help Mrs. Tyson with her feelings of guilt and her depressed mood. The social worker also refers Mrs. Tyson to concrete resources such as support groups in the community that are tailored for caregivers. In order to help Mrs. Tyson become a partner in her husband’s care, the social worker supports Mrs. Tyson in her efforts to become a patient advocate by encouraging her to become involved in her husband’s care plan meetings. The social worker also provides counseling to help the entire family cope with the responsibilities of caregiving for Mr. Tyson.
Gerontological social workers, therefore, serve as the vital link between older individuals and the services they may need. There is great diversity in the strengths and needs of older people and gerontological social workers have the training and skills that are required to address the unique needs of older individuals and their families.