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Social Work and Aging Populations

April 10, 2024
Female social worker leaning over and comforting an elderly woman.

When you think of social work, you may think of children in foster care and other family services. However, an often overlooked population that also needs social services is older adults and members of the elderly population. As their physical health and mental wellbeing start to become impaired, they can also benefit from these services.

In the U.S., one in six people is over 65 years old.1 As the elderly population increases, geriatric social work has become more important than ever. This field includes everything from helping seniors improve their quality of life to investigating and preventing elder abuse.2 If you enter this field, you may assist with anything from legal advocacy to protect seniors from scams and fraud, to offering emotional support to combat isolation, depression and other mental health conditions.

In this post, we will explore the role of social workers in caring for older adults, and what social work interventions can do to benefit the aging population and process.

Understanding Aging Populations

Several factors are driving the uptick in the aging population.3 First, baby boomers make up a large percentage of the population, and many are now in the senior age group. Additionally, fewer Americans are having children, and life expectancy is growing. In the U.S., the older population is also becoming more diverse.4

As people age, they experience unique healthcare challenges, including high costs, difficulty accessing healthcare facilities and a lack of caregivers who are trained to treat them.5 Since chronic disease is more prevalent in the elderly, they also have an increased risk of mental health issues like depression.6

The Role of Social Workers

By entering the world of social work for seniors, you can combat some of these challenges. For example, you can help seniors fill out paperwork to help pay for health services, coordinate their care and provide counseling.7

A large part of gerontological social work often involves senior care coordination. A social worker advocates for the patient, making sure they get the mental, emotional and physical support they need. As a social worker, you may handle administrative tasks associated with care and coordinate multidisciplinary teams of caregivers, keeping each healthcare specialist and the family informed.

Social Work Interventions

Social work in retirement homes and with elderly people in general can alleviate some of the health care challenges mentioned above. Common interventions include counseling, safety plans, crisis plans, elder abuse prevention and advocacy.8

As a social worker, your role in senior care may include anything from offering emotional support to helping with daily tasks. You might walk a senior through a new health diagnosis and help them make a plan to adjust to it, or even help plan end of life care. You may also help tackle tasks they can no longer complete, like getting the mail.

Advocacy and Policy Initiatives

Although you may frequently work with elderly adults one-on-one, geriatric social work isn’t limited to one case at a time. If you focus on gerontology in social work, you may study aging populations and work on policy changes to address common concerns. In the past, social workers have worked on policy changes to help reduce discrimination in geriatric care.9

As you progress in your social work career, you may work with others in your field to help make healthcare more affordable by lobbying lawmakers. You could also work on a smaller scale by training caregivers on elder counseling strategies or recruiting caregivers specializing in elder care.

Promoting Healthy Aging

Aging doesn’t have to be a negative experience, despite the obvious changes that come with it. With the right assisted living facilities, geriatric social workers and education, more people can tackle the aging process with dignity. For example, social isolation and loneliness are big risk factors for mental health conditions.10 As a geriatric social worker, you give seniors a valuable connection and help keep them from feeling isolated.

You can also promote an active lifestyle and work with your senior clients to incorporate physical exercise into their routines. If your clients are facing chronic illness, you can help them adapt to their physical limitations. This will probably include working with physical therapists and incorporating their exercises into your client's daily routine.

Caregiver Support

Many of your future clients may have their own caregivers, including their spouse, their child or other family members. However, caregiving can take a toll on these people, causing mental and physical exhaustion.11

As a social worker, you can support these caregivers by relieving some of their burden. You can listen to their concerns and connect them with the right resources, such as support groups, allowing them to focus on their loved ones without burning out.

Case Studies

There’s an abundance of success stories on social work and aging populations, including one from Butler County Elderly Services: An Ohio woman named Mona, living in the county, used Elderly Services after she lost her leg due to a circulation problem.12 Social workers helped modify her house to adapt to her new mobility issues and offered support and home-cooked meals as she recovered.

These services are essential in helping seniors cope with life-altering situations, and the same was true for Mona. Instead of having to enter into a nursing home, she was able to stay in her house and remain independent while dealing with her new reality.

Cultural Competence

As the aging population becomes more diverse, social workers need to understand cultural differences. For example, older adults might have preconceived notions of elderly care, stigmas around mental illness and an inability to understand advanced healthcare technology and medicine. Underlying biases and other societal factors put certain populations at a higher risk for health disparities.13

Geriatric social workers can help reach these populations and make preventive healthcare more accessible. They can explain the details of new treatments and serve as a bridge between medical personnel and personal interests. They also have a better sense of their patient's physical and emotional wellbeing, family dynamics and financial concerns to help plan the best path forward.

Ethical Considerations

Working with aging populations can cause internal conflict. When social workers work with clients at the end of their lives, they need to understand how their beliefs and experiences may impact their ability to advocate for their clients.

For example, if a client does not want medical intervention and is fighting with their family about it, a social worker should advocate for the client. If you’re on the case, you might disagree with a “do not resuscitate” stance, but you need to respect your client. You may also have to report caregivers if you suspect elder abuse or other wrongdoing.

Future Trends and Innovations

As medical technology continues to evolve, it's also improving elder care and gerontological social work. Machine learning and artificial intelligence are often used to analyze patient records and personalize care.14 As a social worker, you can use the data to monitor health risks and help your clients get treatment sooner.

You may also connect elderly patients with assisted living facilities that offer virtual reality recreation. These tools help people with mobility issues enjoy fun activities without having to travel. Finally, you can help your clients book telehealth appointments and check in with a doctor without having to go to the office.

Learn to Advocate for Seniors With a Degree from Yeshiva University

If you’re ready to make life better for seniors, Yeshiva University’s online Master of Social Work is the program for you. This program is focused on producing social workers who serve others and provide for the needs of local and global communities.

Our alumni can be found throughout the industry, from the field to the legislature. As part of the online MSW curriculum, YU Wurzweiler offers a gerontology and palliative care certification (GPC) that you can earn by completing three targeted electives and focused fieldwork placements.

Schedule a call with an admissions outreach advisor today to learn more.