Social Justice

What is geriatric social work? Exploring this specialized role

June 08, 2022

geriatric social work

If you were lucky enough to grow up with grandparents or other elders, you know how rewarding and enriching intergenerational relationships can be. We often envision people living out their golden years happily retired, enjoying life and aging in place with the support of family and friends.

Unfortunately, any geriatric social worker can tell you this isn’t always the case for senior citizens today. Also called gerontology social workers, these experts specialize in the care of older adults, dedicating their careers to ensuring the health and well-being of our elder community members.

But beyond working with senior citizens, you may still be wondering, “What is geriatric social work?” We spoke with Dr. Golnaz Agahi, associate professor and assistant field director of social work at UMass Global, to learn more about this vital and increasingly in-demand role.

What do geriatric social workers do?

According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), geriatric social workers are professionals who specialize in addressing the various challenges within the aging process, promoting independence, autonomy and dignity later in life. The elderly face many of the same obstacles as younger individuals, but their issues can become further exacerbated by pervasive attitudes related to ageism and ableism.

In order to properly advocate for clients, gerontology social workers often begin by performing a biopsychosocial assessment. This is when they gather details regarding all aspects of the client’s current state, which can include the following:

  • Mental and emotional health
  • Behavior and/or mood
  • Family relationships and support systems
  • Cognitive abilities
  • Living environment
  • Social life
  • Financial situation
  • Physical health
  • Medical history, medication and treatment plans

In addition to this evaluation, these social workers collaborate closely with the client, their caregivers and their healthcare providers to gain a holistic understanding of their needs. This helps inform the recommended individualized care plan, which can include services like the following:

  • Care coordination
  • Counseling
  • Therapy
  • Crisis management
  • Interventions
  • Resource navigation
  • Benefits application
  • Discharge or transition plans
  • Enrichment and entertainment activities
  • Advocacy for clients

What skills does a geriatric social worker need?

There are many overlapping skills that all social workers should master, regardless of their specialization. But in advocating for a particularly vulnerable client demographic, geriatric social workers must also be knowledgeable about specific legislation, policies, services, programs and issues that affect the elderly. This can include the following areas of expertise:

  • End-of-life care
  • Grief
  • Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
  • Social isolation
  • Financial instability
  • Depression, anxiety and PTSD
  • Food insecurity
  • Senior housing
  • Family dynamics
  • Long-term care
  • Elder abuse
  • Substance abuse
  • Cancer and terminal illness
  • Hoarding
  • Support for caregivers of older adults

Dr. Agahi notes that in addition to technical abilities and specialized knowledge, an effective geriatric social worker must be passionate about working with and for the elderly. “Not everyone has the empathy or patience that is required to work with older adults,” she explains.

In fact, Dr. Agahi has seen this firsthand throughout the last five years as a consultant and volunteer at the City of Garden Grove Senior Center in Orange County, California. Her experience with seniors has made a profound impact on her both personally and professionally. “The systems we have to take care of older adults don’t work like they should,” she laments. “It’s heartbreaking to see people struggling to survive instead of enjoying life after retirement.”

But Dr. Agahi is quick to add that the rewards tend to outweigh the frustrations, as there are many aspects of the job that bring gerontology social workers and their clients great joy. “I love their stories and they are so happy to tell them,” she says. “They have so much knowledge and wisdom to share. I learn more from them than I can offer in return.”

Common misconceptions about working with older adults

When Dr. Agahi was hired by the City of Garden Grove Senior Center to develop a more robust program of services to meet the needs of elders in the community, she thought she knew what she was in for. In the past, these spaces mostly focused on creating low-impact social and recreational opportunities.

But as she discovered during interviews with staff and clients, today’s senior centers play a much more pivotal role in preserving the quality of life for our senior citizens. In fact, they now function as essential resource hubs for the elderly and their caregivers.

Dr. Agahi admits that before beginning at the center, she believed some of the common misconceptions people have about the elderly. “I kind of thought about old people as sitting in their rocking chairs, just in their own little world,” she says. But she soon learned that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

“They love to party!” she points out. “Their priorities are all about active social events — dance classes, karaoke, bus trips, billiards, pool days, you name it.” After getting to know her clients better, Dr. Agahi became more adept at understanding the authentic needs, desires and struggles of the elderly population.

Gerontology social worker salary, job outlook and work settings

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for social workers was $50,390 in May 2021, with the top 10 percent of social workers earning more than $82,800.

While the Department of Labor hasn’t released data specific to geriatric social workers, it has been reported that about 30 percent of Americans ages 65 and older will require geriatric care by 2030. As the large population of Baby Boomers shifts into retirement, the need for trained gerontology social workers will continue to expand.

In fact, the BLS projects that the overall employment of social workers will grow 12 percent from 2020 to 2030, which is faster than the average for all occupations. Those who specialize in geriatric social work may find positions in a variety of settings, including the following:

  • Hospitals
  • Community health clinics
  • Long-term and residential care facilities
  • >Hospice
  • Senior centers
  • Assisted living programs

How to become a geriatric social worker

Due to the high medical, social, emotional and mental health needs of senior citizens, those who are interested in pursuing a geriatric social work career will need to earn at least a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work (BSW) and obtain licensure.

BSW students who plan to work with older adults should take any and all geriatric elective courses offered in their undergraduate program. Any internship and/or fieldwork opportunities to gain one-on-one experience will also be invaluable. Some choose to pursue voluntary certifications through the NASW, which offers a Social Worker in Gerontology (SWG) credential for those who have completed 4,500 hours (around three years) of supervised work with older adults.

Many gerontological social workers also go on to earn a Master of Arts in Social Work (MSW). Obtaining this graduate degree allows them to practice clinically and pursue an Advanced Social Worker in Gerontology (ASW-G) credential — the requirements for which include two years of experience and completion of relevant continuing education.

Help the elderly thrive as a geriatric social worker

If you’ve been searching for a career path that will allow you to use your knowledge and skills to have a positive effect on a vulnerable population, you could find what you’re looking for by working with senior citizens. As a geriatric social worker, you could make a positive impact on the lives of elders in your community.

Curious to find out if this profession is your destiny? Read “8 Signs a social work career is your calling” and get answers to your frequently asked questions about becoming a social worker.

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