Strength in Numbers
Listen to your elders.
In the past, our society held fast to this tenet. Age was equated with wisdom, and our elders were revered. Indeed, in many cultures, religions, and families, the aging population still is considered a repository of worldly knowledge. Recently, however, mainstream culture seems to have lost sight of this idea. Despite the growing number of older Americans, many millennials are shying away from careers in aging. Yet now, more than ever, older adults need support, services, and acknowledgment.
Social work school exposes students to different theories, therapeutic interventions, new practice areas, and more, and provides the opportunity to expand the mind, see a world of possibility, and identify room for change. That, combined with each person's ethics, principles, and values, creates a young professional who is green but gracious.
Many social work graduates choose to work in the field of addiction or in school and hospital settings. Each type of work has some sort of magnetic pull or push. For me, the prospect of working with older adults was the magnet that drew me into a fascinating course of study.
We Aren't That Different
As social work professionals, it is important to confront and acknowledge personal attitudes about the community one serves in order to offer the best possible care. There are many misconceptions around careers in aging. For example, many new graduates may think the profession is all about death and dying. On the contrary, there is a lot of meaningful living yet to come for this group. AARP recently released a video in which they asked millennials what age they felt is old, and then introduced those same people to people of that supposed "old" age. After meeting individuals of these "old" ages, the group soon saw that older adults were engaging in many of the same activities as they were. The video is a raw and honest depiction of how the millennial population is unaware of how long people are living, how well people are living, and for social workers, how much rich clinical work exists in this population.
It is important to note that that challenges adults face do not disappear as we age. In fact, these challenges exist at any age. For example, depression currently affects 7 million older Americans. As reported by the American Psychological Association, older adults significantly underutilize treatment for conditions such as depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns for a variety of reasons. One potential barrier to treatment is the pervasive stigma that continues to surround mental health. Many consider only the extremes of mental health and do not perceive themselves to be "like that." Further, the word "depressed" is often used so loosely that it may conjure up stereotypes for some people, while others may not even realize they are, in fact, depressed.
Older adults also face relationship issues, sexual concerns, health decline, and employment and financial concerns. A great benefit working with this population is getting to experience the multilayered issues present in their lives. Working with just one individual, a clinician may be called on to assist with medical and emotional concerns, family dynamics, relationship issues, trauma, and so much more.
Older adults make up the fastest growing segment of the population, with some 10,000 Baby Boomers turning 65 every day, a rate the U.S. Census Bureau estimates will continue until the year 2030. By 2020, it is estimated that approximately 1 in 6 Americans will be age 65 or older.
These statistics highlight that people are living longer and the number of older adults is increasing, as is the diversity of their needs and interests.
In addition to this growth, many states predict dramatic workforce shortages in industries that provide services to our aging population. Therefore, the demand for professionals with expertise in aging is rapidly growing, and career opportunities in gerontology and geriatrics are numerous and varied.
NASW reported that up to 70,000 social workers specializing in aging will be needed to help address the population shift. In conjunction with the many settings in which a social worker can provide service, there are also many roles for social workers. For example, social workers can help connect individuals to services such health care, home care, therapeutic and occupational supports, addiction specialists, legal aides, rehabilitation centers, and mental health support. Social workers not only provide necessary support to the aging population but also to their friends, family, and caregivers. Because of the multiple roles and multiple settings geriatric social workers serve, their skillset is even more defined. Social workers communicate with family, friends, and caregivers. They service and communicate with fellow mental health professionals, physicians, ombudsmen, faith-based organizations, veterans' services, and more. As evident in the evolving generations, todays' aging population is even more diverse and has a multitude of unique needs that may be different from the past. The need to integrate an individual's entire system to effect a positive quality of life requires more skill of a social worker and will provide even more opportunity for rich, clinical work. By supporting the aging, we will be supporting everyone.
The bottom line is that there is—and will be—a lot of work to do, and there are simply not enough clinicians to handle those rising numbers.
Furthermore, it's important to note that working with older adults is not limited simply to nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and older adult centers. Although these settings do support older adults, there are myriad other settings to consider, including the following:
Emerging social work professionals should recognize the fulfillment and opportunity that accompanies careers in aging. Continuing education opportunities provide an easy and low-risk platform to "dip your toes into the water" and learn more about some of the issues facing older adults. For example, the Alzheimer's Foundation of America's (AFA) offers a training program—AFA Partners in Care: Supporting Individuals Living With Dementia—that provides fundamental dementia care skills and goes beyond to explore topics such as the importance of building relationships and recognizing behaviors as a form of communication in individuals with dementia. This program has been recognized by both the New York State Education Department's State Board for Social Work and NASW for 5.5 continuing education contact hours. Other groups such as the National Council on Aging provide professional resources and educational materials. Be curious, explore, and see what opportunities await.
— Lauren Snedeker, LMSW, is part of the social services team at the Alzheimer's Foundation of America.