Commitment of Licensed Social Workers to Aging Practice

By Simons, Kelsey; Bonifas, Robin et al. | Health and Social Work, August 2011 | Go to article overview

Commitment of Licensed Social Workers to Aging Practice

Simons, Kelsey, Bonifas, Robin, Gammonley, Denise, Health and Social Work

There is a well-documented critical need for an expanded and adequately trained interdisciplinary geriatric workforce from medicine, nursing, social work, and allied health fields that can provide person-centered care to our rapidly aging population (John A. Hartford Foundation, 2009). Interdisciplinary teams of geriatric health care professionals, partnering with formal and informal caregivers, will be crucial to care for growing numbers of older adults (American Geriatrics Society, Geriatrics Interdisciplinary Advisory Group, 2006). As key members of the interdisciplinary team, gerontological social workers contribute expertise in social determinants of health and wellness and are engaged in biopsychosocial assessment and intervention to support the overall well-being of elders and their caregivers. As part of this process, social workers provide care management, care coordination, and counseling to individuals and groups. They also serve as liaisons among elders, their caregivers, and the broader health care system while providing advocacy on issues such as patient-centered care and end-of-life decision making (Mellor & Lindeman, 1998).

Population aging is increasing the demand for social workers with aging expertise. For example, because of the rising numbers of older adults, the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics (2010) has projected a 16 percent increase in social work jobs overall and a 22 percent increase in jobs for social workers in medical and public health settings through 2018. Of particular note, social work positions in long-term care settings are expected to increase by more than 50 percent. Approximately 36,000 social workers were employed in long-term care in 2002, and 55,000 are projected to be needed in this sector by 2012 (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, 2006). Although nearly three-fourths of licensed social workers report serving older adults, only 9 percent identify aging as their primary field of practice (Center for Health Workforce Studies, 2006; Whitaker, Weismiller, & Clark, 2005).

In response to these trends, intensive efforts to train and recruit social workers for gerontological practice have taken place in the United States over the last 10 years. The John A. Hartford Foundation has invested over $60 million to support the education and training of social workers committed to the field of aging. Their multifaceted approach to promoting a sufficiently large, well-trained workforce includes attention to BSW and MSW curriculum enhancement, field internship enrichment, and building of the research capacity of faculty scholars and doctoral students. Since the Hartford investments started in 1999, over 1,000 faculty members across the United States have been trained in gerontological social work through Hartford-funded curriculums and field education initiatives (Hooyman, 2006). As of this writing, 12 cohorts of faculty scholars have received support for their scholarship in aging with training in leadership, teaching, and research through the Hartford Faculty Scholars Program. A companion program for doctoral fellows has also provided research training, professional development, and dissertation support for 10 cohorts of PhD candidates in social work (John A. Hartford Foundation, 2009). Several hundred MSW students in more than 70 institutions have been trained in gerontology through the Hartford Partnership Program for Aging Education (HPPAE) (Volland, 2008).

Progress in encouragement of social work programs, faculty, and students to embrace training in aging is evident from the success of the Hartford initiatives, but these efforts are insufficient to fully meet the needs for a growing workforce (Institute of Medicine, 2008). Other forces, such as the impending retirements of large numbers of practicing social workers (National Commission for Quality Long-Term Care, 2007), suggest that closer attention to the retention of gerontological social workers currently in the workforce is critical.

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