For most of us who aren’t there yet, learning to truly appreciate the aging process requires a thoughtful look beyond the surface. Experiences with grandparents and elderly people in the community tend to emphasize the physical aspects of aging. In reality, the elderly population faces a complex array of psychological, social, emotional and financial challenges as well. This understanding lies at the heart of gerontological social work.
Aging and gerontological social workers work with elderly populations to holistically address their changing needs. Aging populations demonstrate greater incidences of depression, social isolation, dementia and financial issues, among others. In order to identify these problems and create lasting solutions, gerontological social workers must be sensitive to the impact of race, gender, and socioeconomic status (in addition to age) on each person’s situation. This can encompass a wide range of services in an equally diverse number of environments, including care facilities, at home, or in the community.
Gerontological social workers often help clients returning from hospital stays to set up home health care services. The level of care provided is dependent on the client’s functional level, family support, and access to other healthcare services. This transition provides an opportunity for social workers to gain a clearer picture of their clients’ needs through screening, assessments, and communication with discharging physicians.
Beyond basic health needs, clients with limited mobility and family support may lack the ability to keep up with all of their daily tasks – especially following an injury or the loss of a spouse. When this is the case, the gerontological social worker can connect the client to meal/grocery delivery services, yard care services, and so forth. The challenge on the social worker’s part is not in establishing these services, but identifying the need. Elderly clients are often hesitant to ask for help at home, which is why it’s important for social workers to carefully assess their independence level.
In some cases, clients may need one-time support with technical or logistical tasks. For this reason, it’s important that social workers consider logistical needs of their clients as well as those requiring recurring services. These needs can be difficult to categorize, as each patient’s unique life events can bring about equally unique challenges, such as:
- Paperwork – Applying for insurance or other services, advanced directives, taxes, legal forms, etc.
- Financial planning – Budgeting for and paying off medical expenses, adjusting retirement accounts, etc.
- Adaptive equipment setup – Bed rails, bathroom handrails, shower chairs, etc.
- Traveling – Arranging travel documents, packing, arranging a house/pet sitter, etc.
When employed by hospitals and nursing facilities, gerontological social workers have access to a range of powerful tools that they can use to meet their clients’ needs. In inpatient care facilities, for example, social workers are often included as part of the patient’s care team. This means that they can coordinate with doctors, occupational and physical therapists, nurses, and so forth when helping their clients. The added transparency allows social workers to establish a more accurate perspective of the medical and psychological state of each client, which can be instrumental in choosing the proper course of action.
Specifically, social workers who work in these environments may assist patients with submitting medical documentation, retrieving records, organizing information, counseling, coordinating family and social visits, and much more. As mentioned, social workers often help to establish home care services upon discharge as well. The social worker in the hospital environment should be thought of as an adaptable and supportive patient advocate.
Finally, social workers are also employed by specialized senior care programs. Some of these programs serve a select clientele, like Parkinson’s patients, while others cater to all seniors. Many of these programs offer healthcare, counseling and mental health services. Since the objective is often to keep seniors living at home, a social worker employed at a daytime program will have less oversight than one employed at an inpatient facility. This places intake assessments and rapport-building at an even higher priority level.
Family Support Networks
Regardless of where they work, gerontological social workers are trained to take advantage of the family support network whenever possible. In the case of elderly clients, this often means setting up training and education for family members who wish to become home health caregivers for the client. The social worker can contact the occupational therapist, for example, and have them involve the patient’s family members when they are performing ADL (activities of daily living) training with the client, such as dressing and undressing, toileting, navigating stairs, using medical equipment, and so forth.
Ideally, the gerontological social worker acts as a coordinator between the client and their family support network in many ways beyond healthcare. The social and psychological benefits, for example, of strengthening the family support network can be instrumental in motivating the client to follow the social worker’s recommendations. This coordination can take many forms, from scheduling family visits and caregiver training to updating family members on the client’s progress in different areas.
Like other specialties under the social work umbrella, gerontological social work encompasses a very broad range of skills and services. The ability to critically discern a client’s needs from sometimes limited information is at the forefront. With thoughtful, targeted interventions, gerontological social work can drastically improve quality-of-life for any elderly person in need of assistance.
BS Sociology| University of Nebraska at Omaha
AS Physical Therapy | Clarkson College