In Tuesdays With Morrie, Mitch Albom writes: "As you grow, you learn more. Aging is not just decay… it's growth." If you've ever laughed—and cried—your way through this best-selling book, you know that it's packed with life lessons that showcase the value of spending time with one's elders. Seniors have much to teach us—and we have a responsibility to support them as they navigate their golden years.
That's where geriatric social workers (sometimes called gerontological social workers) can make a major impact.
Geriatric social workers assist seniors with a variety of decisions and processes that invariably accompany aging. They also help families stay connected to their aging loved ones. Along the way, geriatric social workers can form powerful bonds with their patients.
This article on how to become a geriatric social worker will cover:
- Salary and career outlook for geriatric social workers
- Pros and cons of becoming a geriatric social worker
- Duties of geriatric social workers
- Skills of geriatric social workers
- Geriatric social worker licensing and certification
- Resources for becoming a geriatric social worker
Salary and career outlook for geriatric social workers
The U.S. Census Bureau projects that the 65-and-over population will grow to 83.7 million by 2050. That nearly doubles the 2012 population (43.3 million), and represents an increase from 14 percent to over 20 percent of the total population. The baby boomers, currently America's largest living demographic group, are driving this population shift.
As a result, the job outlook for geriatric social workers is excellent. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects an 11 percent job growth rate for all social workers between 2018 and 2028; demand should be particularly high in rural areas with limited care providers. Given the rapid growth rate of the aging population, job opportunities for geriatric social workers could increase even more dramatically.
While the job outlook for geriatric social workers is excellent, the pay may be less enticing; the median salary for geriatric social workers is slightly under $50,000. That's about on par with what the average social worker in all fields earns, but if you're looking for lawyer or doctor money, you'll need to look elsewhere.
Pros and cons of becoming a geriatric social worker
Pros of becoming a geriatric social worker
- Better-than-average job outlook: As mentioned above, a growing population of aging Americans, coupled with a higher-than-average growth rate in all social work jobs, suggests that the number of jobs in geriatric social work should increase for the foreseeable future.
- Workplace variety: Geriatric social workers are employed in mental health clinics, assisted living facilities, hospitals, nonprofits (like family services organizations), and in-home care.
- Human connection: Geriatric social work involves helping people during one of the toughest periods of life. You'll help people transition to retirement and manage assistance programs and medical regimens. In some cases, you may even contribute to end-of-life care.
Cons of becoming a geriatric social worker
- Job stress: U.S. News & World Report says social workers experience higher-than-average stress in their work. Stress is an issue for all social workers, and geriatric social workers deal with many of life's greatest stressors: illness, poverty, family strife, and, ultimately, death.
- Low earning potential: According to Payscale.com, the highest paid geriatric social workers earn about $70,000. There isn't a whole lot of money in the profession, especially given the amount of education required.
Duties of geriatric social workers
A typical day for a geriatric social worker may include the following activities:
- Making decisions regarding the health and well-being of older adults
- Advising families on necessary health services
- Counseling caregivers
- Advocating for geriatric care among medical students and healthcare professionals
- Working with seniors in high-risk areas and financial situations
- Advising families on the need for outside care or specialized facilities
- Working with elderly patients on everyday physical and mental healthcare
- Connecting patients with supportive and stimulating group activities, which may include therapy
Skills of geriatric social workers
Geriatric social workers need basic social work competencies to make sure they can effectively meet patient's needs. These include:
- Advocacy and case management skills
- Empathy, compassion, and patience
- Ability to build trust and rapport with patients
- Familiarity with conditions and health issues that typically accompany aging
- Knowledge of elder abuse and neglect
- Knowledge of available basic social service agencies and programs
- Knowledge of the law as it applies to the elderly
- Understanding of different perspectives and attitudes based on generational differences
Geriatric social worker education requirements
Social work requires a high level of specialized formal education (spoiler alert, it will probably end with a master's degree). First, you'll need a Bachelor's in Social Work (BSW) from a Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)-accredited institution. A specialization in gerontology is nice but not necessary; a bachelor's degree in psychology or sociology is also acceptable.
You might want to consider these bachelor's degree programs:
Most social work employers also require a master's degree—typically a Master of Social Work (MSW) with a focus in gerontology.
The following MSW programs focus on geriatrics:
- Boston University hosts the Center for Aging and Disability Education and Research (CADER). The school offers the Lowy specialization in aging practice, policy and social justice
- Rutgers University - New Brunswick offers an aging and health certificate program as well as an MSW fellowship in aging
- University of Iowa offers an Aging Studies/Gerontology Field of Practice
- University of Michigan - Ann Arbor offers specialized scholarships in geriatric social work as well as a 'social work practice with older adults and families from a lifespan perspective' pathway
Geriatric social worker licensing and certification
Geriatric social workers must apply for licensing through the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). There are several steps to maintaining licensure throughout one's career:
- Initial License: First-time social workers must first become licensed as bachelor- or associate-level social workers, sometimes referred to as Licensed Baccalaureate Social Workers (LBSW). New social workers will then work under an approved Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) as they pursue their Master License.
- Master License: After completing the initial licensure period, geriatric social workers can complete field experience and sit for an exam to become a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW).
- Social Worker in Gerontology (SWG) certification: Social workers wishing to specialize in geriatric care frequently pursue independent licensure, which requires a period of supervised practice. Geriatric social workers frequently pursue a Social Worker in Gerontology (SWG) credential, which requires 20 hours of relevant continuing education in the gerontology field. Social workers are only eligible for this certification after putting in three years or 4,500 hours of supervised work with geriatric patients. After completing SWG certification, social workers may apply for Advanced Social Worker in Gerontology (ASW-G) certification.
- License renewal and continuing education: Many states require social workers to complete continuing education courses throughout their career.
Resources for becoming a geriatric social worker
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Administration on Aging: This division of HHS connects seniors with resources to live longer, healthier lives, including retirement and long-term care options.
- American Geriatrics Society: This nonprofit organization provides leadership to geriatric healthcare professionals, policymakers and the public by advocating for patient care, research, education, and public policy issues.
- Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB): This nonprofit organization is composed of social work regulatory boards from all 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and all 10 Canadian provinces.
- National Association of Social Workers (NASW): NASW is the world's largest membership organization for professional social workers.
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