Health Care Needs of Aging Adults: Unprecedented Opportunities for Social Work

Article excerpt

The most recent census reports that 34 million Americans are ages 65 or older and that this group is 17 percent of the U.S. population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006). Demographers have estimated that the aging of the United States will rapidly expand over the next 20 years, with the number who are age 65 or older increasing by 75 percent to 69 million Americans (U.S. Administration on Aging [AOA], 2004). This growth will plateau at 20.7 percent of the U.S. population (86 million) by 2050 (AOA).The most dynamic growth will be in the oldest-old age category (those ages 85 and older), with the number of Americans in this category increasing from 1.5 percent of the population (4.2 million) to more than 5.0 percent (18.2 million) by 2050. By 2050, analysts also predict that nearly one-third of aging Americans will be from an ethnic minority population.

Most aging adults have at least one chronic health condition such as hypertension, arthritis, heart disease, cancer, or diabetes (AOA, 2006).Advancements in medical technology, pharmaceuticals, and treatment protocols have extended life expectancy but at a significant financial cost. For example, Medicare expenditures are projected to grow from 2.7 percent to 9.0 percent of the gross domestic product by 2050 (Van deWater & Lavery, 2006).The cost of the prescription drug benefit alone will be more than $534 billion over the next 10 years. Furthermore, overall health expenses steadily increase with age, with those age 75 and older having the highest per capita health expenditure of any cohort, $3,741 per year (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2006). This growing need for and rising cost of care services will require more informed, efficient, and cost-effective methods for addressing the health needs of aging adults. Scholars and experts have voiced concern about health care systems being prepared to address the needs of aging adults, both in professional expertise and in resources (Berkman & Harootyan, 2003; Haber, 2003).There is a clear need to increase social work knowledge, skill, and leadership to keep pace with and be prepared for the health care needs of aging adults.


The John A. Hartford Foundation's investment in geriatrics has changed the face of social work education and research. The foundation's primary goals are to enhance and expand the training of social workers, doctors, nurses, and other health professionals who care for aging adults as well as to promote innovations in the integration and delivery of services for all older persons (John A. Hartford Foundation, 2003). From 1998 to 2005, the foundation authorized $41 million for programs related to social work (www. common goal of the various components of the foundation's Geriatric Social Work Initiative is to develop the capacity to train qualified social workers to improve the health care and well-being of the aging population (John A. Hartford Foundation).

Dr. Barbara Berkman, Helen Rehr/Ruth Fizdale Professor of Health and Mental Health at Columbia University's School of SocialWork, is an individual scholar serving as a true champion in geriatric care. Through her countless funded studies, scientific articles, books, and national and international service, she epitomizes social work leadership. As past editor-in-chief of Health & Social Work, she advocated for stronger research content and moved the .journal forward in scholarly content. She has served as principal investigator for the John A. Hartford Geriatric Faculty Scholars Program, which is one component of the Geriatric Social Work Initiative. Dr. Berkman, working through the Gerontological Society of America and with her partner Linda Harootyan, deputy director and program officer for the Hartford Faculty Scholars and Doctoral Fellows Program, has invested in 72 faculty members; the results of their initiative are tremendous. …


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