Geriatric Social Work Careers

The Basics

Elderly people often face a number of difficult issues. Their health and mental abilities are often in a state of decline, and they might also have to deal with the deaths of family and friends they’ve known for years. They normally are on a fixed income and are often unable to earn any sort of income, so they sometimes feel they are no longer productive members of society, which can lead to depression. And sometimes even performing daily tasks is difficult for them, so they have to rely upon geriatric workers to help them with these daily functions.

What is a Geriatric Social Worker?

Geriatric social workers, also known as gerontological social workers, help elderly people meet their daily needs. Geriatric social workers work closely with a wide variety of medical and health professionals (i.e. psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, physicians, and nurses). These social workers help elderly/older clients and patients improve their lives (i.e. manage mental health conditions, reduce stress, and resolve issues). More specifically, they provide services to adults, age 65 years old and older. Geriatric social workers also help elderly clients and patients manage behavioral problems, and cope with illnesses.

The main tasks of geriatric social workers are to address personal, social, and environmental challenges that arise as people age, and help elderly patients find solutions to these issues (i.e. physical complications associated with aging, and mental health, and cultural challenges often faced by elderly adults). In order to become a geriatric social worker, you will need to earn bachelor’s degree (BSW) in social work/sociology. Although only a bachelor’s degree is required to enter the field of geriatric social work, most employers prefer individuals who have earned a master’s degree in geriatrics, gerontology, aging, or a related field.

Related: Becoming a Geriatric Psychologist

What Does a Geriatric Social Worker Do?

Geriatric social workers are trained to assist the elderly deal with a wide assortment of problems, like mental disorders, social problems, financial issues, emotional problems and health care needs.

Taking care of elderly people can be a demanding job. Tasks like helping the elderly bathe or go to the bathroom require physical strength and stamina, as well as a great deal of patience. Tasks like caring for the health problems—including emergencies—of the elderly require additional training and skills. Geriatric social workers sometimes assist patients with their financial matters and help them in applying for health care benefits and other community services.

Geriatric social workers typically perform the following job functions:

  • Providing services to elderly clients and patients (over the age of 64) with mental illnesses, emotional distress, and psychological disorders.
  • Assessing the needs, strengths, weaknesses, situations, and support systems of elderly clients and patients, in an effort to develop short-term and long-term goals and treatment plans.
  • Developing treatment plans that are designed to improve the mental health and well-being of elderly clients and patients.
  • Helping clients and patients adjust to life changes (i.e. illnesses, divorces, debt, death, and/or unemployment).
  • Researching and referring elderly clients and patients to resources (i.e. government housing, medical services, Meals-on-Wheels, transportation, and food stamps).
  • Helping elderly clients and patients sign up for government assistance (i.e. Medicare)
  • Tracking the progress of elderly clients and patients.
  • Evaluating geriatric mental health services to ensure that they are still effective.
  • Taking elderly clients to doctor’s appointments, and making sure they are taking their medications properly.
  • Acting as a liaison and advocate for elderly clients and patients.
  • Helping elderly clients perform hygiene-related functions (i.e. bathing, going to the bathroom, brushing their hair, helping them get dressed, etc.).
  • Providing assistance and support to the families of clients and patients.
  • Arranging social activities and gatherings for elderly clients and patients.

Where Does a Geriatric Social Worker Work?

Geriatric social workers typically work in the following environments:

  • Skilled nursing facilities (nursing homes)
  • Senior centers
  • Assisted living facilities
  • Mental health clinics
  • Private practices (counseling practices)
  • Hospitals & clinics
  • Social services agencies
  • Government and state agencies
  • Client/patient residences

Why Do We Need Geriatric Social Workers?

Geriatric social workers are important for a variety of reasons, such as: they provide assistance to the elderly, during a time, in which, older individuals are often ignored, abused, and neglected. Geriatric social workers also provide comfort and companionship to seniors, who have lost their children, parents, friends, pets, and even their health. They help these individuals attend doctor’s appointments and therapy appointments, take their medications, dress, eat, participate in recreational activities, handle financial transactions, shop, cook, and cope with losses (i.e. funeral arrangements, life support decisions, etc.), etc. Moreover, geriatric social workers help seniors sign-up for age-based programs like: housing, healthcare, and government benefits.

It is important to remember that “aging” can be quite challenging, especially when there is a loss of mobility, health, loved ones, and independence. Older individuals have to contend with a variety of new life situations, such as: empty nest, the loss of loved ones and friends, declining health, depression, limited finances, loneliness, and social isolation. It is not easy to adjust to these changes, which is why geriatric social workers are so important – they fill that void for many people. The main goal of these social workers is to make sure that the needs of seniors are met each and every day. So, as the life expectancies continue to rise due to medical advancements and healthier lifestyles, the need for geriatric social workers will also continue to rise.

What are the Requirements to Become a Geriatric Social Worker?

Geriatric social workers must be trained to handle not only the physical needs of the elderly, but also the emotional needs. They must have a basic knowledge of psychology and must also be kind and considerate, while also being able to maintain enough detachment to deal with the potential deaths of their patients.

Education

A bachelor’s degree (BSW) in social work/sociology is required for entry-level geriatric social work positions. However, some employers (i.e. social service agencies) may hire employees, who have a bachelor’s degree in human services or psychology. An undergraduate social work/sociology program prepares you for a career as a geriatric case manager (case worker) or mental health technician (assistant) with a specialty in elderly/older populations. The goal of this type of  program is to teach you how to counsel or provide services to older adults, over the age of 64. During this time, you may also learn about human thought processes, human behaviors, and social welfare policies.

You will need to complete 4 years of college (150 to 200 semester hours) to earn a bachelor’s degree in social work. Courses at the undergraduate level may include: Human Behavior, Social Environments, Individuals with Diverse & Exceptional Needs, Health Care Delivery in the United States, Medical Ethics, Psychology of Aging, Sociology of Aging, Sociology of Death, Social Welfare Policies and Research. Before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in social work, you might be required to complete a supervised geriatric internship (clinical practice).

As a mentioned previously, in most cases, only a bachelor’s degree in social work/sociology is required to become a geriatric social worker, but in some cases, employers may prefer a master’s degree (MSW) in social work. Instances, in which a master’s degree may be preferred include: positions at healthcare facilities and skilled nursing facilities (i.e. assisted living facilities and nursing homes).

For example, a geriatric worker may need a master’s degree (MSW) in social work/sociology, plus 2 to 3 years of post-degree, supervised clinical social work experience, if he or she wants to work with elderly clients and patients who have complex mental illnesses and developmental delays, or if he or she wants to have a private practice.

A master’s degree in social work/sociology generally takes 2.5 years (30 semester hours/40 classes and 900 clinical internship hours in a mental health field) to complete, although some graduate social work programs allow you to earn a master’s degree in 12 months. A graduate social work program prepares you to administer clinical assessments, provide supervision to entry-level geriatric social workers, and offer resources to elderly/older clients and patients. Courses required at the master’s level include: Death/ Dying: Issues Across the Life Cycles, Spirituality and Ethics in Social Work Practice, Social Work Practice in Health Care Settings, Programs and Services for Aging Adults, Aging and the Family, Grief Therapy, and Trauma & Loss.

Training

Additional training in the field can help you prepare for a career in the geriatric social work field. These social workers work with diverse populations, so if possible become active within your community. In fact, volunteering at non-profit, assisted living/skilled nursing facilities or social service agencies that caters to the elderly can help you become more accustomed to interacting with older adults at various stages of decline. You can also volunteer your services to those, who cannot afford to pay for social work or counseling services. If you are unsure where to look for a volunteer experience, ask your social work professors, check the websites of mental health organizations, newspapers volunteer sections, and/or college career sites. Also, contact the human resource departments at: local hospitals, clinics, assisted living facilities, nursing homes, and social service agencies, and ask the contact person about volunteer experiences.

You may also want to learn a foreign language. Some employers prefer bilingual geriatric social work employees, or employees, who can fluently speak Spanish. Consider enrolling in a foreign language course, while in your undergraduate, and/or graduate program.

Licensing

In order to provide services to elderly clients and patients, you will need to acquire a license and/or certification. Research your state’s requirements to determine if a license/certification is required to practice as a “clinical social worker with a specialty in geriatrics.” Almost all states require geriatric social workers to be licensed, however some government and state agencies allow these social workers to work at their facilities, without a license or certification. A master’s degree in social work/sociology, along with 2 years of clinical mental health experience (working with elderly/older adults), following graduation, is required to become a Licensed Social Worker (LSC). Once you have completed all of the licensure/certification requirements, you will be required to pass a licensure/certification exam.

What Skills and Qualities are Needed for a Geriatric Social Worker?

  • Compassion/Empathy: Geriatric social workers often work with elderly people, who are in the midst of stressful, difficult and challenging situations. You will need a high level of compassion and empathy, if you want your clients and patients to trust you.
  • Social/People Skills: Geriatric social workers must be able to work with a variety of people (i.e. various races, cultures, families, health conditions, religions, lifestyles, ages, etc.). You will need social skills to develop and nurture positive relationships with clients, patients, and colleagues.
  • Listening Skills: To be a successful geriatric social worker, you will need to have good listening skills. Elderly clients and patients need to feel comfortable sharing their innermost fears, and problems with you, so you will need to actively listen to what they are saying, in order to help them resolve their issues.
  • Organizational Skills: You will need good organizational skills because this career typically consists of managing multiple clients and patients, helping elderly adults fill out paperwork (intake forms), and documenting treatments, and client progress.
  • Problem-Solving Skills: You will also need strong problem-solving skills, if you want to be an effective geriatric social worker. These skills are important for helping elderly clients and patients find solutions to their problems.
  • Time-Management Skills: As geriatric social worker, you will provide services to elderly adults. And, as a result you will need to effectively manage your time, so that you can provide quality care to all of your clients and patients.

What is the Salary for a Geriatric Social Worker?

According to Payscale, geriatric social workers on average earn $41,484 per year, as of July 2015. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for healthcare social workers and social workers in general is $51,930 and $59,100 respectively. (May 2014 data).

What is the Job Outlook for Geriatric Social Workers?

Social work positions are expected to increase 19% by the year 2022. In other words, as people age, they will require more mental health services, which is where mental health social workers (i.e. geriatric social workers) will come into play. The career outlook for this career field is positive. As a geriatric social worker, you will more than likely be required to work weekends, evenings, holidays, and overtime. You may also be required to visit clients at their homes, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities (bls.gov).

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