Partnering for Better Care
for Our Older Veterans

When it comes to providing quality social work services to older adults, the VA is widely considered the gold standard.

The VA is the largest employer of social workers in the U.S., employing 10,718 social workers, plus another 1,200 master’s level student interns. The VA’s “army” of social workers provides a wide range of services to the men and women who served their country.

That’s why the Hartford Foundation is proud that the Hartford Partnership Program for Aging Education (HPPAE) is partnering with the VA to prepare qualified social workers to serve our nation’s 21.2 million veterans, 9.6 million of whom are 65 or older—the period in their lives when so many begin to need more health and supportive services.

Since its inception, HPPAE has been directed by Patricia J. Volland, MSW, MBA, (Changing the Way Social Workers are Trained) and the Social Work Leadership Institute (SWLI), first at the New York Academy of Medicine and more recently at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College in New York. The groundbreaking practicum model for training second-year master’s level social work students in geriatric competencies helps schools strengthen their partnerships with community organizations for field placements, find stipend funds for trainees in aging, and most innovatively, implement a system that has students rotate through different field placements to expose social workers to a diverse array of services for older adults.

Fact: Nearly 50 percent of current veterans are 65 or older, underscoring the importance of high quality geriatric care at the VA.

The VA has long shared the Foundation’s vision and commitment to training social workers to play an integral role in delivering quality care to older Americans. In 2012 and 2013, the VA launched the partnership with HPPAE through its Geriatric Research Education and Clinical Centers (GRECC). A total of 11 VA sites have adopted the HPPAE rotational model, with four more scheduled to receive the technical assistance needed to do so in 2014. In addition, five new schools of social work have adopted the HPPAE model so they can participate in the VA partnership.

Already at these sites a total of 10 students have graduated after completing the rotational model. In 2014, a total of 24 students are expected to graduate after completing the HPPAE program.

“Their commitment to this model and their engaging in that way with graduate schools of social work becomes very, very important,” Ms. Volland says of the VA.

The experience in geriatric social work that students gain working in the VA is valuable, from helping veterans connect with community agencies that can assist them in living in their own homes longer, to applying for government benefits, and from developing and implementing treatment approaches that address individual social problems to working with people who have acute or chronic medical conditions.

“A crucial thing that we need to remember is that our veterans return to a community. They don’t return to the VA,” says Michael T. Kilmer, LCSW, Chief Consultant for Care Management and Social Work Services at the VA. “Our mission is to serve our veterans, their family members and caregivers, and to improve their lives and their well-being. So our partnership with the community is crucial.”

Having the VA, known for its willingness to adopt innovative approaches to aid veterans, partner with HPPAE is “like getting the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” says Nora OBrien-Suric, PhD, a senior program officer at the Hartford Foundation. “The result is that together, the VA and the HPPAE partnership is producing social workers who will be managers and leaders delivering high-quality services to older people. This partnership is changing the way social workers are trained to care for older adults and building a valuable resource in the VA.”

(Left) Chief of Staff Heather Mahoney-Gleason (right), leads a HPPAE orientation at the Gainesville, FL, VA/GRECC with Marilyn Luptak, PhD, MSW, Associate Professor, University of Utah.
(Right, top and bottom) Supervisory social worker David Syfrett, MSW, LCSW, with an older veteran.

Originally established through a Hartford Foundation grant in 1999, the program—known as the Practicum Partnership Program at the time—brought a radically different approach to the standard practicum model for second-year master’s social work students.

“What was unique about the practicum piece was that until Hartford came around, practicum experiences were at a single site,” says Laura A. Robbins, MS, MBA, the program officer for Hartford’s Geriatric Social Work Initiative at the time. “You aligned yourself to a service organization for a year, and that was it. For this program, what we asked was that the students circulate among different agencies. And the reason we asked that was because older adults circulate among agencies, they don’t typically stay with one, and we wanted students to see things from the perspective of the older person. It turns out that was revolutionary.”

Social service agencies that previously tended to work separately began working together as the students rotated between them, Ms. Robbins says.

For us, the university-community partnerships that are an essential component of HPPAE have been one of the biggest benefits. We’re finding in each site where we have implemented the program, there is a group of academic affiliates that we were working with, that we’re familiar with, and that we have established relationships with. And then we’re also bringing in, usually at each site, two or three new schools that are interested in participating because it’s the HPPAE program. So it’s really helped us to expand the number of university-community partnerships, as well as the depth of those partnerships.” Lorn Gingrich, LCSW-R
National Social Work Program
Veterans Administration

“Non-aging social work practicums saw that this was the reality of today’s social worker, that they no longer had long-term relationships with one agency,” she says. “So other fields picked it up. There were a lot of partnerships that were part of this. It was a very complex program to design and to get launched. But because of the demand for players working together at the local level, it worked.”

And today it’s thriving. As the program transitioned to its new institutional home within the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) in 2013, it’s a good time to look at its accomplishments: From 2000 through 2012, 69 programs received funding in 33 states, graduating a total of more than 2,600 social work students. More than 20 additional schools adopted the model outside the Hartford-funded efforts.

The partnership with the VA ensures that moving forward, more master’s level social work graduates will enter the workforce with specific knowledge and experience in geriatrics, more schools of social work will adopt this proven training model, and more of our nation’s veterans will benefit from competent and compassionate care in their old age.

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