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Geriatric Social Workers

The Job

A woman in her late 70s has just lost her husband and now must live alone for the first time in many years. She has decided to move to another town to live closer to her children and will need help making the transition. She needs a smaller, more manageable home; she needs help with meals and shopping; she would like to make friends in the community. A number of services are available to her, but she may not find out about them without the aid of a geriatric social worker.

As with any social worker, the geriatric social worker is devoted to helping people and communities solve problems. Social workers are dedicated to empowering people and helping people to preserve their dignity and feeling of worth. This kind of assistance and advocacy is especially important among older people. Because old age can sometimes put a person in poor physical and mental health as well as cause financial difficulties, older people often need help and protection. They may need help with preparing meals, finding transportation, and doing housework, or they may need assistance moving into a retirement community or nursing home. But the elderly population of any community is diverse; some older people stay in perfectly good health, and they rely on social services for recreation, meeting people, educational programs, and grief and loss counseling.

People are living longer these days, and the elderly population is growing. At the beginning of the 20th century, only one-half of newborns would live past the age of 50; people born at the beginning of the 21st century can, on average, expect to live past the age of 75 (but the average age varies by gender and ethnic group). This is why social work will continue to offer many job opportunities.

The social work profession is divided into two areas: direct practice and indirect practice. Direct practice is also known as clinical practice. As the name suggests, direct practice involves working directly with the client by offering counseling, advocacy, information and referral, and education. Indirect practice concerns the structures through which the direct practice is offered. Indirect practice (a practice consisting mostly of social workers who hold Ph.D.'s) involves program development and evaluation, administration, and policy analysis. Geriatric social workers may work directly with the elderly population through counseling, advising, and conducting group sessions. They also help clients find services for health, housing, finances, and transportation. Those social workers involved in indirect practice develop and oversee the agencies and departments that provide these social services.

Geriatric social workers work for service agencies, hospitals, nursing homes, senior centers, and other community organizations. Some also work independently. Their help is needed in every town and city across the country; some social workers in areas with smaller populations may serve a number of small towns within a region. No matter where a geriatric social worker serves, the nature of the work is usually the same. Geriatric social workers meet with older people individually to determine their needs. Home meal delivery programs, transportation services, and recreational programs are some of the basic services offered by community organizations. Some organizations also offer home health care. With nurses and aides assigned to visit the elderly in their homes and to help them with their housework and medical needs, elderly clients can continue to live on their own.

Geriatric social workers evaluate clients by interviewing them and determining their needs; social workers then enroll clients for these services. They make phone calls and provide the service agencies with client information.

The client may need even more assistance. Adult day care services are available in some cities, as are adult foster care services that match older people with families. A social worker may also need to help a client arrange to move into a nursing home and counsel the client about the transition. These counseling services are also extended to members of the client's family, advising them in how to deal with a parent's or grandparent's aging or illness.

In some cases, an elderly person is neglected or taken advantage of. A geriatric social worker can look into these cases and serve as an advocate, stepping in to advise the client of his or her legal rights. In addition to legal services, a geriatric social worker will help a client locate any needed financial services. Social workers help clients make arrangements for the payment of services through Medicare and other financial aid.

Because of efforts by the government to improve the quality of nursing home care, social workers are becoming more active within these facilities. These geriatric social workers work closely with the elderly and their families in arranging the move into the nursing home. They also counsel families upon the death of an elderly relative and help with funeral arrangements. Geriatric social workers also protect and promote the rights of the residents, and they may train nursing care staff members on patient rights.

The geriatric social worker is part of the larger field of aging. This field, which works to provide help for older people while researching the process of aging, is composed of hospitals, health care corporations, government agencies, churches and other religious entities, colleges, and other organizations and institutions. Various professions, such as law, psychology, health care, education, and marketing, include specialties in aging, or gerontology.

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