Social Work : Building Its Role to Serve an Aging Nation: Social Work in Aging: A Panel of Experts Looks to the Future

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What critical advances in social work will best serve the aging population? What key barriers need to be overcome to achieve those advances? What role can professionals play in realizing improvements for tomorrow? For this "In Focus" section on the future of social work in gerontology, Aging Today posed these questions to a group of experts in the realms of policy, research and practice. Excerpts from their responses follow. To read the full text of their answers, go to

Panelists include: Elizabeth J. Clark, executive director, National Association of Social Workers (NASW); Robyn L. Golden, director, Program Development and Provider Relations, Council for Jewish Elderly, Chicago; Rosalie A. Kane, professor, Division of Health Services Research and Policy, School of Public Health, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis; Anita L. Rosen, director of special projects, Council on Social Work Education (CWSE), and project manager of CSWE's Strengthening Aging and Gerontology Education (SAGE-SW) program.

What advances in social work do you feel will be most critical to serving the aging population in the next five years?

Golden: The question is not so much what advances are critical, but rather, what will be critical for social workers to serve an older population. Currently, there are not enough people in the field who have both interest and knowledge about working with older adults. In addition, it is projected that there will be insufficient numbers of people entering the social work labor market in the near future to meet the general demand. To increase the number of social workers prepared to work with older people, the field must normalize work with them and demonstrate that this work can be creative and satisfying. Being able to attract social workers in developing these skills will be critical to developing a workforce ready and eager in the field of aging.

Clark: It is estimated that by the year 2010, we will need 75,000 social workers in the field of aging, but currently only a fraction of that number (less than 5,000) are available. This shortage is especially serious as social workers are the largest providers of mental health services in the United States. The number of clinically trained social workers is more than the combined total of psychiatrists, psychologists and psychiatric nurses, according to 1998 figures from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration. In many rural areas, social workers are the only mental health professional available. Therefore, specialized gerontological training of the social work workforce is critical to meeting the future needs of our aging population. This education must take place not only in the college classroom, but in continuing education efforts to reach the over one-half million social workers currently in practice.

Rosen: The important role of professional social work in an aging nation will be advanced by a broad array of stake-holders in a collaboration of educators, practitioners, researchers, licensing bodies and policymakers throughout the profession. The groundwork for collaboration has begun through efforts that create an environment where policymakers, the public and the profession appreciate the value of social work to meet the needs of an aging population. Many of these efforts are outgrowths of the national John A. Hartford Foundation's Geriatric Social Work Initiative. (See "Hartford's Focus on Social Work in Aging" in this "In Focus Section.") The current state of social work and aging and the field's challenges in aging for the future are described in the SAGE-SW report A Blueprint for the New Millennium (available online at, which was produced in 2001 with support from the Hartford Foundation.

One critical area discussed in the Blue-print is the need to provide all social workers with basic competence in aging. (See "Social Work's Top-10 List" in this section. …