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Escalating Need for Geriatric Social Workers

Ten years ago, social work students received little specific education in the aging process. Few programs provided gerontology curriculum at the bachelor’s level or specialization at the master’s level. Unless a student entered a social work program with knowledge or interest in aging issues, there often was little opportunity to be exposed to it. In 1999, less than 10 percent of faculty members in 117 graduate programs had formal training in aging. In 2000, of the 300 social work doctoral dissertations produced that year, only seven percent were in geriatric social work.

Today, as the Hartford Geriatric Social Work Initiative celebrates ten years of promoting the highest level of geriatric competence among social workers, progress has been made in altering these trends. The Hartford Foundation’s investment in geriatric social work education, research, and practice has been aimed at breaking the downward cycle, raising the prestige of aging-focused social work, and increasing the ranks of geriatric social workers in academia and in practice. Going forward, it will become increasingly essential that these efforts not only continue but expand.

The continued growth of the older adult population in the coming years will escalate the demand for social workers with geriatric knowledge, skills, and values. Geriatric social work ranks as one of the top 20 careers in terms of growth potential. Employment in the field of geriatric social work is expected to increase faster than the average of all other occupations through 2015, due in part to shorter hospital stays and the need for care coordination at hospital discharge.8

Unfortunately, too few social workers are stepping up to meet this demand. In 2001 only three percent of the members of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) identified gerontology as their primary area of practice.9 This had increased by 2005, but only to nine percent.10 Close to 50 percent of master’s level social work students state they have little or no interest in working with older adults after graduation.11 To complicate matters, geriatric social workers are older (median age of 50 years) than practitioners in other fields, and are nearing retirement.

The critical shortage of geriatric social workers has multiple causes, including limited funding in gerontology in the 1990s, which diverted social work scholars and doctoral students to other fields, especially child welfare. Restricted funding for gerontology also reduced the prestige of geriatrics in academic institutions. Consequently, the system of faculty role models, peer networks, research assistantships, and other support universities often provide to nurture careers suffered. The result was a lack of faculty trained in aging and a paucity of geriatric content in social work education.

The specialty of geriatric social work has also suffered due to negative stereotypes about the elderly and erroneous beliefs that positions working with older adults are not sufficiently challenging or rewarding. Another barrier to recruiting students to geriatric social work is the relatively lower salaries of geriatric social workers compared to social workers generally.

The Institute of Medicine Warns of Looming Shortage of Geriatric Health Care Workers

“The nation needs to act now to prepare the health care workforce to meet the care needs of older adults,” assert the authors of a 2008 report by The Institute of Medicine, Retooling for an Aging America: Building the Health Care Workforce. This report, written by a committee of health care experts from a wide range of disciplines, warns that unless action is taken the growing population of older adults will be met with a shortage of health care workers, and many of these providers will lack the appropriate geriatric training to provide high-quality care to older adults.

The Institute of Medicine committee issued an urgent call to enhance the competence of all health care professionals (physicians, nurses, social workers, and others) to work with older adults. The committee also called for increased recruitment and retention of geriatric specialists and caregivers. Geriatric specialists are needed for their clinical expertise, but also because they will be responsible to train the health care workforce. The committee also highlighted the pressing need to develop new models of care for older adults and their families.

The Institute of Medicine report states that “a well-recognized barrier to geriatric education and training of all health care providers is the inadequate number of available and qualified academic faculty… Furthermore, beyond the need for a greater number of geriatric faculty, all geriatric fields need strong expert leaders to develop new knowledge and recruit new students.”

The report concludes: “The education and training of professionals in geriatrics has improved because of the expansion of school-based opportunities, increased efforts in interdisciplinary training, and the development of alternative pathways to gaining geriatric knowledge and skills… Even so, the committee concludes that in the education and training of the health care workforce, geriatric principles are still too often insufficiently represented in the curricula, and clinical experiences are not robust.”

“Meeting the exponential demand for an aging-savvy social work workforce is critical and at risk,” says Alberto Godenzi, PhD, President, National Association of Deans and Directors of Schools of Social Work. “Social work programs must offer comprehensive and cutting-edge curricula, which includes geriatric content.”

8. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2006). The supply and demand of professional social workers providing long-term care services. Report to Congress.
9. Rosen, A.L. & Zlotnik, J.L. (2001). Demographics and reality: The“disconnect” in social work education. Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 36(3/4), 81-97.
10. Whitaker, T., Weismiller, T., & Clark, E. (2006). Assuring the sufficiency of a frontline workforce: A national study of licensed social workers.
11. Cummings, S.M. & Galambos, C. (2002). Predictors of graduate social work students’ interest in aging-related work. Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 39(3), 77-94.

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