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Career Spotlight: What Is a Geriatric Social Worker?

March 22, 2022

Whether dealing with complex health care issues on a fixed income, managing limited mobility or struggling with social isolation, older adults often confront challenges that require support. A geriatric social worker helps older adults navigate obstacles so they can live as fully and independently as possible. Geriatric social workers do everything from helping people recovering from hip surgery transition back into their home to providing grief counseling and practical support to people who recently lost a spouse or partner.

Through their services, geriatric social workers help keep older adults safe and improve their quality of life, as well as give caregivers critical support.

Geriatric Social Worker Role and Responsibilities

Geriatric social work focuses on addressing social, physical and socioeconomic issues that impact older adults’ well-being and health. A combination of expertise and experience allows geriatric social workers to effectively assess, advocate for and develop care plans that improve the lives of older adults.

Geriatric social workers approach their work with an emphasis on their clients’ self-determination and personal growth. This means they strive to ensure that care plans reflect the wishes and strengths of older adults and their families. They first evaluate the various needs and abilities of clients and then collaborate with them to develop short- and long-term interventions.

Geriatric Social Work Interventions

Older adults may have circumstances in their lives that need immediate attention. In these cases, geriatric social workers help them find personalized short-term interventions. For instance, geriatric social workers may connect clients in need of social interaction to community resources such as local senior centers that host exercise classes or dance socials.

They may assist clients in applying for benefits based on their military service or income, which can pay for home health care services and cover medication costs. Additionally, geriatric social workers often play an important role in easing transitions from hospitals to rehabilitation centers or from private homes to assisted living facilities.

As an example, geriatric social workers may prepare detailed plans for a client returning home after a month long stay at a rehabilitation center. The plans may include recommendations for an emergency response system, food delivery service and home health agency.

Relationships between geriatric social workers and their clients can last years, even decades. During these ongoing relationships, geriatric social workers continue to coordinate care and make adjustments as clients’ situations, needs and wishes change. A client may require considerably different services at 65 than at 85. A spouse may die, dementia may develop, or mobility may decline.

As new challenges or opportunities present themselves, geriatric social workers reassess their clients and discuss new strategies. For example, geriatric social workers might inform clients about new smart technologies that track medication or use voice activation that increases independence and brings peace of mind to a person with a high risk of falling.
Additionally, geriatric social workers often brainstorm solutions with their clients to address everything from safety concerns to bouts of depression to financial planning. They also help their clients navigate advanced care planning, the planning process for how to handle a person’s care should they become too ill to make decisions for themselves in the future.

Support for Caregivers

Another important component of geriatric social work involves providing support to caregivers and families. Geriatric social workers understand they can best support older adults by ushering in the help, insights and opinions of spouses, children and other family members. They also recognize that these individuals need aid to best support the functioning and safety of their older relatives.
Geriatric social workers help educate caregivers about healthy behaviors and disease prevention that can promote the well-being of their older relatives. They also deliver bereavement counseling.

Additionally, geriatric social workers help caregivers find their way around the fragmented, hard-to-navigate health care system, improving their understanding of the medical, financial and psychological needs of their older relatives. They may help caregivers find appropriate specialists, such as occupational or physical therapists, or treatment options for mental health and addiction, which their older relatives might need.

Where Do Geriatric Social Workers Work?

Geriatric social workers practice in a range of settings, serving clients leading very active lives, as well as clients in advanced stages of Alzheimer’s, for example.

While many work in health care settings, including nursing homes, hospitals, home health care and hospice centers, other geriatric social workers find employment in social service agencies. Caregiver agencies, adult day centers, case management organizations and senior centers all rely on the special skills of geriatric social workers. Elder law practice groups, government agencies and other organizations addressing elder care also employ geriatric social workers.

Required Education and Experience for a Geriatric Social Worker

Typically, geriatric social workers need a Master of Social Work to practice. With an M.S.W. in hand, aspiring geriatric social workers can pursue licensure, a requirement to practice in most states. To obtain a license, individuals must earn an M.S.W., complete supervised experience and pass an exam.

Next, geriatric social workers need to learn about the laws, social programs and policies that affect older adults. They should also have advanced understanding of the complex issues and needs of this demographic, as well as knowledge of the broad spectrum of social services that promote the autonomy of the older adult community.

Although not required, geriatric social workers gain a competitive advantage by earning specialization credentials in the field. These credentials indicate to clients and employers that a geriatric social worker has reached a high standard of skill and experience.

The National Association of Social Workers offers two credentialing options for geriatric social workers holding an M.S.W.: * Advanced Social Worker in Gerontology (ASW-G) * Clinical Social Worker in Gerontology (CSW-G)

Both credentials specify distinctive and overlapping requirements, including:

  • Continuing education hours on issues specifically related to older adults
  • Two years’ work experience in geriatric social work
  • A social worker license

Geriatric Social Worker Salary and Job Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), geriatric social workers made between $33,020 and $85,820 per year as of May 2020. The median annual income of geriatric social workers was $51,760; salaries can vary based on work experience and locations. The BLS also projects 13% growth in the field of social work between 2019 and 2029, which is more than three times as fast as the average job growth rate for all occupations.

Make a Difference in the Lives of Older Adults

Older adults deserve to feel in control of their lives. Geriatric social workers empower older adults not only to exercise independence but also to avoid needless setbacks and overcome the challenges that often go along with aging. By providing valuable services that address mental health and practical daily living issues, among other things, geriatric social workers help meet the needs of older adults and their families. Explore how Virginia Commonwealth University’s online Master of Social Work cultivates the expertise needed to make a difference in the lives of older adults.