Social Work Leadership and Aging: Meeting the Demographic Imperative

By Sisco, Sarah; Volland, Patricia et al. | Health and Social Work, November 2005 | Go to article overview

Social Work Leadership and Aging: Meeting the Demographic Imperative


Sisco, Sarah, Volland, Patricia, Gorin, Stephen, Health and Social Work


In 2001, with support from the John A. Hartford Foundation, the Council on Social Work Education's Strengthening Aging and Gerontology Education for Social Work (CSWE/SAGE-SW) project published A Blueprint for the New Millennium aimed at "strengthening the impact of social work to improve the quality of life for older adults and their families" (CSWE/SAGE-SW, 2001, p. 1). Taking note of what it called the "demographic imperative"--meaning the combined effects of the aging of the baby boom generation, the increasing median age of the national population, and "extended longevity" from technological, medical, and lifestyle factors--the authors argued that there will be increased demand for social workers. In particular, social workers' "comprehensive," biopsychosocial approach to meeting human needs make them well equipped to provide "services for older Americans and their families" (p. v).

Despite this potential, the profession continues to face serious challenges. According to the National Institute on Aging, by 2020 the United States will require 70,000 professional social workers with expertise in aging, which translates into a 43 percent increase over the current social work labor force (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1987). A recent survey of 10,000 licensed social workers by NASW's Center for Workforce Studies (NASW, 2005) found that almost one-third of social workers are age 55 and older (with only 17 percent younger than 35), and 13 percent said they "plan to leave their current positions in the next two years." In addition, only 9 percent of social workers identified aging as their practice area, and the median age of these individuals was 50 years, compared with 49 years for the profession as a whole. Clearly, we must bring younger people into the social work field and, in particular, into a specialization in aging (Marshall & Altpeter, 2005) to meet "essential" care requirements in a variety of settings (Volland & Berkman, 2004).

Unfortunately, schools of social work often fail to offer adequate gerontological content in their courses and "have limited resources and capability to strengthen gerontology education, and limited incentive to improve the situation" (CSWE/ SAGE-SW, 2001, p. 6). Students and faculty often hold stereotypical and ageist views, and "most students" have little interest in aging as a field. Students with an interest in aging often receive little support or encouragement, and faculty members have "little or no" background in aging. As a result, most BSW and MSW students receive "little or no training or experience in working with older adults" (p. 6), and these knowledge and care experiences are frequently limited (Volland, Berkman, Stein, & Vaghy, 2000). From a broader perspective, the public, government officials, and employers are often unaware of social workers' unique skills and the role they might play in addressing the demographic imperative.

In conjunction with A Blueprint for the New Millennium, CSWE and the John A. Hartford Foundation collaborated on the Hartford Geriatric Enrichment in Social Work Education project, aimed at infusing content on aging into social work curricula (http://depts.washington.edu/gerorich/ index.shtml). A total of 67 BSW, MSW, and combined programs participated in this three-year project. The Hartford Foundation has funded related initiatives, such as the Faculty Scholars and Doctoral Fellows programs, to establish gerontological leaders in research and education. Hartford has led initiatives to improve curriculums on aging and practice methods through the Faculty Development and Geriatric Enrichment programs (http://depts.washington.edu/gerorich/ hartford/hartford.shtml). Here, we examine the Practicum Partnership Program (PPP) and a related initiative, the Geriatric Social Work Public Policy Center (GSWPPC), funded by Atlantic Philanthropies.

THE NATIONAL LEADERSHIP COALITION

In 2003 nine aging and social work organizations--CSWE, NASW, the National Association of Deans and Directors of Schools of Social Work (NADD), the Association of Baccalaureate Program Directors (BPD), the Society for Social Work and Research, Institute for the Advancement of Social Work Research, the Action Network for Social Work Education and Research, the Veterans Administration, and the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM)--joined to establish the National Leadership Coalition (NLC). …

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