Educating Social Workers for an Aging Society: A Vision for the 21st Century

By Scharlach, Andrew; Damron-Rodriguez, Joann et al. | Journal of Social Work Education, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Educating Social Workers for an Aging Society: A Vision for the 21st Century


Scharlach, Andrew, Damron-Rodriguez, Joann, Robinson, Barrie, Feldman, Ronald, Journal of Social Work Education


THE UNITED NATIONS General Assembly recognized "humanity's demographic coming of age" by declaring 1999 the International Year of Older Persons. The increased aging of the world population is the most dramatic demographic shift in history. From 1999 to 2050, the world population aged 65 and over is expected to triple (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1996). In the United States, the percentage of older persons has already tripled since 1900 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1996). In 2030, more than 20% of Americans will be 65 or older. This demographic shift is illustrated graphically in Figure 1. In 1900, the population of the United States could be depicted as a pyramid with the largest population bands representing the youngest members of society. As we move into the 21st century, a rectangle becomes more representative of the population of the United States, with the bands representing adults--particularly the oldest--widening to reshape the demographic picture.

[Figure 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

This shift is largely due to increased longevity, one of the great accomplishments of the 20th century. A child born in 1999 can expect to live 76.2 years; a child born in 1900 had a life expectancy of only 47 years (Hooyman & Kiyak, 1999). Rowe and Kahn (1999) describe the achievement in two major phases. The first phase is the reduction in infant mortality and death rates in childhood predominantly through public health measures. The second phase is the more recent decrease in death rates among middle-aged and older people through advances in self-care and medical science.

The dramatic increase in the population of older people presents an immediate challenge to social work. The profession must intensify its focus on late life and intergenerational interdependencies, as well as the impact of the demographic revolution on the structure of the family. Longevity has created an unprecedented opportunity for interaction at all stages of the life course in a complex web of kin relationships (Bengtson, Rosenthal, & Burton, 1990). In 1900, only 21% of the U.S. population had a living grandparent, and by 2000 76% will; over this same period, the chance of a person over 60 having a parent alive will increase from 18% to 44% (Quagdagno, 1999). The divorce rate has also increased. Fifty percent of all marriages now end in divorce as compared to 10% at the end of the 19th century, further adding to the complexity of the contemporary family (Uhlenberg, 1993). Families now may contain four and five generations, with fewer members in each generation than in the past. This is described as the verticalization of the family system. This contrasts with the former, more intense horizontal linkage of multiple members of a single generation. Individuals now will spend more years than ever occupying intergenerational roles. However, one fifth of older Americans have no children and develop some-what distinct social networks (Gironda, Lubben, & Atchinson, 1999). Social work has the opportunity to lead in both research and practice with the new intergenerational family.

The dynamics of intergenerational exchange may be measured in terms of the dependency ratio--the proportion of working adults to the number of persons over 65 and under 18. Though the dependency ratio has increased over time, the largest dependent group will continue to be those under 16 years of age (Hooyman & Kiyak, 1999). However, the increase in dependent persons at both ends of the age spectrum makes caregiving more challenging for both families and institutions.

To examine dependency in old age, it is necessary to make a distinction between aging and illness. In 1989, 70% of older persons living in the community reported their health as excellent (National Center for Health Statistics, 1990). Yet, with increasing age comes an increase in chronic illness that affects functioning. The aging process reduces reserve capacity and lessens the body's ability to respond to stress at both the organ and the system level. …

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