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How (And Why) to Become a Geriatric Social Worker

How (And Why) to Become a Geriatric Social Worker
Given the rapid growth rate of the aging population, the job outlook for geriatric social workers is excellent. Image from Unsplash
Lillian Stone profile
Lillian Stone October 29, 2019

The baby boom has turned into an elder boom, creating many jobs in elder care. Geriatric social workers assist the elderly in managing medical treatment, procuring social services, and navigating the challenges of aging.

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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.

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There are a couple of significant practical considerations:

- A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in social work
- A license to practice or required social work certification

Credentials vary among careers, states, and territories. Licenses include:

- Certified Social Worker (CSW)
- Clinical Social Work Associate (CSWA)
- Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW)
- Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LASW)
- Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW)
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
- Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW)
- Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
- Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP)
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)

Most of these licenses require a Master’s or Doctorate, along with additional coursework or clinical internships. (source)

A survey of 2017 social work graduates by the National Social Work Workforce Study found that social workers with Master’s degrees and Doctorates made substantially more than those with no advanced degree. (source)

- People with MSW degrees made $13,000-plus more than those with only BSW degrees
- MSWs make more in large cities or urban clusters
- People with doctorates earned $20,000 to $25,000 more than people with only MSW degrees

University and Program Name Learn More

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

Undergraduate education

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:

Graduate education

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

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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