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January/February 2010 Issue

The Geriatric Social Work Initiative — A Decade Later
By Lindsey Getz
Social Work Today
Vol. 10 No. 1 P. 5

It’s been 10 years since the Geriatric Social Work Initiative (GSWI) was launched, and it’s come a long way in that decade. There’s no doubt the GSWI has been responsible for many important changes, but despite the significant inroads made, there is still much left to be accomplished.

The initiative was developed to address a growing need for aging-savvy social workers as the number of older adults continued to rapidly grow and diversify. It focused on the fact that an increasing number of social workers found themselves working with elders but lacked the training and skills to address this group’s specific needs. A look at the educational programs being offered revealed an insufficient number of courses related to aging.

“There was a significant crisis evolving over the tremendous need to increase geriatric education,” says Barbara Berkman, DSW, PhD, of the Columbia University School of Social Work and the principal investigator for the Hartford Faculty Scholars Program. “It’s still somewhat of a crisis today. We have a lack of geriatric-trained faculty to serve as role models and to bring in the evidence-based practices that we need to improve our clinical-based practices.”

Thus, the GSWI emerged as a multifaceted initiative with various components that would address some of the necessary changes. The overall GSWI contains four individual initiatives: the Hartford Faculty Scholars Program, the Hartford Doctoral Fellows Program, the Hartford Partnership Program for Aging Education, and the National Center for Gerontological Social Work Education (the Gero-Ed Center).

The latter, directed by coprincipal investigator Nancy Hooyman, PhD, promotes institutionally driven changes in foundation curricula and social work programs while developing policy initiatives for the broader adoption of gerontological educational resources. Hooyman, who is also an endowed gerontology professor and dean emeritus of the School of Social Work at the University of Washington, says that in the five years since it opened, the center has had a tremendous impact on faculty and programs nationwide by changing beliefs. She says the center has helped progress beyond the stage of having to convince people that aging is important and into a realm where its importance in the curriculum is no longer questioned.

“We’ve changed attitudes and increased awareness,” she continues. “I think the people who have participated in our training and workshops are ‘getting it’ and adding gerontology to their required curriculum. But there’s still more to be done.”

Hooyman says one of the biggest challenges faced has been addressing student perceptions, not faculty. Many still have ageist attitudes and don’t consider gerontology as a field they’d like to pursue. “It doesn’t help that aging concentrations tend to be the smallest, if an institution even has that concentration or specialization in the first place,” she adds.

So there is still a long road ahead, but Hooyman says the progress to date has been encouraging, as well as a learning experience. “We’ve learned that we need to get a lot more creative about student recruitment,” she says. “You can tell students about the demographics and the workforce needs and hit them with statistics, but they often glaze over it. We’ve found that the most effective way to recruit students to this field is giving them personal experience with older adults. So we’ve been funding an initiative called the BSW Experiential Learning Program, which includes programs that develop service learning—not for field placements, per se, but rather for shorter term interaction with older adults. It’s been very successful.”

Another area of progress is a textbook project in which the Gero-Ed Center has worked with the authors and editors of the most frequently used social work textbooks. “In 2003, we did a very extensive content analysis of those books to see to what extent they included content on aging and older adults,” explains Hooyman. “We found only 3% out of almost 10,000 pages of text even mentioned aging or older adults.”

More recently, the analysis was repeated, specifically looking at the books of authors who had met with Gero-Ed staff and had been provided with important resources. “The number had gone up to 5.5%,” reports Hooyman. “It’s still very small, but it’s headed in the right direction. The idea is that if we’re going to encourage institutions to include this content in their courses, it’s important to make sure the textbooks support it. If students receive textbooks with no mention of aging, then it’s not backing up the curriculum.”

Cultivating Leaders
There have been many other indications of success in the last decade. The Hartford Doctoral Fellows Program has emerged as an important component of the overall GSWI. It provides financial support and professional development, helping prepare future leaders for a tenure track faculty position at major universities. “The mantra I often cite is, ‘Today’s doctoral students are tomorrow’s faculty,’” says James Lubben, DSW, MPH, the program’s principal investigator and director of the University Institute on Aging at Boston College.

The program was a response to the decline in the number of doctoral students choosing gerontology for their dissertations. In 1999, there were only 15 students majoring in a gerontology graduate program in the entire country. “In 2007, there were more than 30, which is a remarkable increase but still small compared to the needs,” says Lubben.
To date, there are close to 100 doctoral students who have become Hartford Doctoral Fellows. “These are the people that will provide leadership for the future,” says Lubben. “Their excitement, energy, and idealism stand out, and I have great hopes for the profession of social work if we can cultivate this leadership.”

Lubben says students suited for future leadership in the field of aging should demonstrate potential in a variety of areas. Students should have the necessary research skills not only for producing statistics but for understanding the research methods or the array of methods that could be applied to the questions they want to address. They should also have excellent communication skills. “It does no good to be able to do the research if you can’t tell the classroom—or the world—about it,” says Lubben. “We want people who have the capacity to teach, write, and communicate to policy makers, legislators, and the whole community.”

Complementary to the fellow program is the Faculty Scholars Program, which now has 100 scholars across the country. This program, directed by Berkman, is a sort of second stage to the fellows program and has been gaining momentum since its inception. “Our faculty scholars are now exercising leadership in their organizations and communities by sitting on university and editorial boards and just by bringing gerontology to the table,” says Berkman. “Their visibility as scholars in terms of presentations and service in the community has really changed the face of social work in many ways. As a result, we have made geriatric social work very visible in academia.”

Through this program, progress has been made over the years. Most recently, the program has partnered with the VA. “We recognized that roughly one fifth of the U.S. population is made up of veterans and their families,” says Berkman. “And there are more than 9 million vets over the age of 65. These older vets will experience challenges not only related to their service but to their age. The VA is the largest employer of social workers in the country, so this partnership made sense. Both the VA and the Hartford Faculty Scholars Program share the goal of advancing geriatric practice and research.”

Reflecting on the past 10 years, there’s no doubt the GSWI has seen many accomplishments. But the work is not yet done. Hooyman says a focus on elders is relevant to those specializing in gerontology along with all facets of social work, giving the GSWI much to accomplish in the future. “Regardless of where someone ends up practicing, they’re going to encounter older adults—whether it’s child welfare and the grandparents are caregivers, mental health and older adults with depression, or substance abuse and elders with abuse problems,” she continues. “So many times students think of older adults as a separate population, confined to long-term care facilities, but the reality is that they’re going to encounter older adults in any area of social work. Whether or not students and faculty are specializing specifically in aging, this is content we need to have going forward.”

— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, PA.