Gerontological Social Work: Meeting the Needs of an Aging Population

As large numbers of baby boomers become seniors, the landscape of social work is changing and adapting in response. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration on Aging (AoA), the number of older adults in the United States is expected to double from the year 2000 to the year 2030. Along with the increased number of adults age 65 and older, there is greater demand for professionals who can understand and address the social, environmental, and personal needs of people as they age. The multifaceted field of geriatric social work involves meeting these needs through a variety of professional roles.

What Is Gerontological Social Work?

Older adults in the U.S. face challenges, concerns, and opportunities — many of which were not present for previous aging generations. Social work gerontology professionals work closely with these adults, their families, health care organizations, and companies that cater to older adults to serve these changing needs.

This important work often consists of connecting older adults with the right resources, community services, and technologies. It also may involve consulting with an aging adult’s family members to develop long-term health care plans and payment strategies.

With older adults experiencing varying levels of health over the final decades of their lives, professionals must be adept at understanding how people age, so they can recognize and address problems early. Social workers also may be responsible for spotting signs of neglect or abuse that may occur in private home settings or long-term care facilities.

It’s important to note, however, that gerontological social workers aren’t restricted to working with adults coping with mental health problems, illness, or decreased mobility. Many older adults in the U.S. lead active and independent lives but still benefit from services associated with bridging cultural barriers, seeking employment, or even facing the challenges of raising a grandchild. These services may include support groups, parenting education, career counseling, job referral services, and professional training classes.

Gerontological social workers pay attention to big picture issues and understand that there is a correlation between how people age and their race, gender, and socioeconomic status. They think about health disparities that are related to a lack of access to resources and how this impacts the physical and mental health of seniors.

Jobs in Gerontological Social Work

In the broad field of social work, gerontological social work offers numerous opportunities for professionals who specialize in serving older populations.

Typical health care settings for gerontological social work include hospitals, nursing homes, assisted-living facilities, rehabilitation centers, and home care agencies. Social workers are also being placed in libraries, specifically to intervene with older clients, and in faith communities as conduits to care.

As the population of older adults grows, more businesses are hiring geriatric social workers to enhance products and develop new ideas that cater to aging populations. These businesses turn to gerontological social workers to bring their specialized knowledge to marketing, human resources, sales, and quality control departments.

Social work professionals also may find positions in government agencies, adult protective service departments, private practices, faith-based agencies, and centers for aging.

There are also emerging opportunities in the field, such as life coaching and financial planning. As the market for older populations continues to grow, gerontological social workers are likely to discover even more options across a greater number of fields.

Education and Licensure Requirements

Social workers who have earned a Master of Social Work (MSW) and are looking to establish their expertise in working with the older adult population may want to pursue additional professional credentials, such as the Clinical Social Worker in Gerontology (CSW-G) credential from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). To be eligible to receive a CSW-G credential, students need a master’s degree from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education as well as two years (3,000 hours) of supervised, paid post-MSW social work with organizations that offer mental health assessments and treatments to older populations.

Professionals are also required to have a current state social work license and proof of at least 30 continuing education contact hours related to interventions, bio-psychosocial matters, and issues pertaining to work with older adults, their caregivers, and their families.

Finally, gerontological social work professionals are required to follow the NASW Code of Ethics and the NASW Standards for Continuing Professional Education.

Pursuing social work that enhances the quality of life for older adults is often a highly rewarding career path. In addition to attaining personal fulfillment, gerontological social workers can look forward to choosing from a variety of job settings and taking advantage of the numerous opportunities available in this in-demand field.