Social Work: Building Its Role to Serve an Aging Nation: Why Education Is Needed

By Scharlach, Andrew; Damron-Rodriguez, Joann et al. | Aging Today, March/April 2003 | Go to article overview

Social Work: Building Its Role to Serve an Aging Nation: Why Education Is Needed


Scharlach, Andrew, Damron-Rodriguez, Joann, Robinson, Barrie, Feldman, Ronald, Aging Today


IN FOCUS

The demographic shift to an increasingly older society will have a dramatic impact on individual choices over the life course, on the structure of the family and on multiple social institutions. In this context, the social work profession has the potential to make a substantial contribution to the well-being of older adults and their families. However, social work is not yet adequately prepared to practice in the aging society of the 21st century.

The social work profession needs to expand its commitment to building inter-generational approaches to social problems. Yet, the field of social work has only begun to fully embrace gerontological practice. This historical lack of responsiveness has been based on a combination of individual and professional ageism, competing practice demands and a lack of institutional supports. However, this situation is beginning to change, largely as a result of recent major investments in social work by the John A. Hartford Foundation of New York and the Atlantic Philanthropies. These initiatives have demonstrated that social work has the potential to assist people in aging well and to prepare families to meet their increasing intergenerational responsibilities.

A DESPERATE SHORTAGE

Overarching social-work goals in an aging society include preserving elders' maximum independence, optimal functioning, dignity and quality of life through personal empowerment and effective, efficient service utilization. However, a number of significant educational and training issues need to be addressed if this field is to fulfill its potential in serving people as they age, including older adults and the late-life family.

Social workers who have the specialized knowledge and ability required to meet the needs of the aging U.S. population are in desperately short supply. For example, data from the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) shows that by the end of 2000, only 1.7% of students working toward a master's of social work (MSW) degree were specializing in gerontological social work. In 1983 this figure was about 6%.

In order to meet the growing need for care, increased numbers of social work students require an extensive training program in gerontology. This education should provide students with the knowledge and skills necessary for effective work with older adults and their families in resolving a variety of problems in a variety of settings. Yet, according to CSWE, only 12% of current MSW programs offer a specialization or concentration in work with elders.

Although a vast number of social workers will find themselves working with elders and their families, it is clear that all social work students, regardless of their primary field of practice, should be exposed to basic information about working with older people. Moreover, the CSWE's "Curriculum Policy Statement" clearly requires schools of social work to demonstrate that their curricula include content about populations at risk, including those distinguished by age.

In addition, at a time when the social work profession is giving increased recognition to the diversity of client populations, it is imperative that students gain an adequate understanding of variations in client experience and in social-work practice based on client age. A study by Joann Damron-Rodriguez and colleagues (Gerontology and Geriatrics Education, Fall 1997) showed that fewer than 2% of students working toward master's of social work degrees who are not specializing in aging take any courses whatsoever in aging during their entire two years in graduate school.

Without at least minimal exposure to gerontological content, baccalaureate-level social workers are apt to emerge from college with stereotypical views of aging and older people. As such, these social workers are hardly likely to want to work in aging settings or consider the possibility of pursuing an MSW with a specialization in aging. Furthermore, they will not have the knowledge and skill necessary to assess and respond effectively to the needs of older adults who have complex psychosocial or medical problems. …

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