Special Advertising Section
Baby boomers increase the need for geriatric social workers
Yesica Sanchez (center), a student at Dominican University, is serving her gerontology internship at the Oak Park Arms retirement community. (May 5, 2011)
"It was estimated in 2003 that 4 percent of social workers go into professional practice with older adults upon their graduation," says Dr. Adrian Kok, Chair of Gerontology and Research Curriculum, Graduate School of Social Work at Dominican University. "The interest in working with older adults was not particularly high then because the majority of social workers prefer to work with children and their families. Based on these statistics, there will be a projected shortage of social workers to meet the accompanying increase of older adults in the population."
Baby boomers will be an aging population with a difference, says Kok. "They will be healthier for longer, but they will also live longer. Therefore, coordinating care with older adults, their families, and complex service networks is crucial," he says.
Gerontological social workers will be needed to serve as navigators and expediters, helping older adults and their families to understand and choose among an array of health and social services.
While other Illinois colleges offer a certificate in gerontology, Dominican University takes a unique approach to increase interest in the field to meet the demand. It not only offers a master's in social work with a certification in gerontology -- also known as Graduate Gerontology Certificate in Aging Care -- but it develops internships based on the student's interests, while focusing on a wide range of aging issues and policies in the program's curriculum.
Students are assisted by the faculty and their field supervisor to develop a placement plan that is consistent with their interest and learning goals," says Kok.
Dominican has been awarded three grants from the Council of Social Work Education and the Social Work Leadership Institute at New York Academy of Medicine to develop and build the gerontology initiatives at the school.
Kok and his colleague Dr. Martha Jacob, Specialization Coordinator, Gerontology, Rosary College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Sociology and Criminology, are in the third year of their three-year Hartford Partnership Program in Aging Education grant that began in the fall of 2008. The grant provides stipends to graduate students in the GSSW to pursue specialized training in geriatric social work, and offers opportunities for undergraduates ito shadow the graduate students as they work through their placements.
"The program focuses on increasing the graduate students' gerontological competencies and interest in working with older adults once they receive their degrees," says Jacob. "It also seeks to encourage undergraduates to consider a professional graduate degree in social work with older adults as a career path. Graduate students in this program are provided stipends unlike other fields of internship practice, which do not have any form of financial incentives."
Theory in practice
Yesica Sanchez of Los Angeles will receive her MSW from Dominican this May. She is serving her gerontology internship at Oak Park Arms retirement community. Not only does Sanchez interact with the senior residents during the day, sometimes running activities, she is in the unique position of living at Oak Park Arms as well.
A graduate of Whittier College in California, Sanchez is surprised to find herself in the gerontology field at all.
"My interest started during my senior year of undergraduate at Whittier College," says Sanchez. "I had worked with kids and decided to challenge myself and work with a different population in case management for seniors. I was surprised to find out I loved working with seniors. When it came to graduate school I knew I wanted to continue that path."
Sanchez had two specific requirements for graduate school: the ability to achieve her MSW swiftly and to find a school that could replicate the small, caring community of students and instructors she had at Whittier.
"Very few schools across the nation have the Advanced Standing Program, that offers a master's in social work in one year," she says. "Dominican does. It seemed perfect. The support that each student provides one another is fabulous. The professors are accessible."
Sanchez started her internship at Oak Park Arms in September and it will continue until May.
"I am working the ins and outs of the whole facility, therefore, I work in each department," she says. "My role is to come in with a fresh view and assess and evaluate and come up with suggestions for changes in the departments."
Sanchez will also work directly with the community's executive director with the ultimate goal of learning his position.
"Then one day I will be able to carry out an executive manager position to run and manage a senior facility," she says.
Sanchez's experience at Oak Park Arms has not been all work. She has also made some good friends.
"My friend John is a very nice man who lives just around the corner from me," she says. "When I first moved in he handed me all these bus routes he had because he didn't want me getting lost. On rainy days he calls me and asks if I'm home yet because he doesn't want me out in the rain. When my family comes in May I'm hoping to have a little dinner with him and some of the other friends I've made here."
This comprehensive internship has also taught Sanchez not to take the senior population for granted.
"It takes a special person to work with seniors to respect them and help them to maintain their dignity and safety without treating them like children," she says.
What it takes
Jacobs says a skilled social worker in gerontology should be adept at working with individuals, groups, families, communities, organizations and governments.
"Communication skills, knowledge of the community's resources, the ability to network to learn about resources that clients need is as crucial as the ability to evaluate the outcomes of their work," adds Jacob. "A leader in the field of aging should also be able to work with organizations, community advocates, and policy makers to develop new services to meet with the changing needs of older adults."
Dominican has different age groups in its program with the average age being 25.
"Those who choose to work with the aging population are older and have more life experiences, and usually return after their first career and are very certain that they are interested in working with this population," Kok says. "However we are seeing younger social workers become interested in the field of aging in our program and that is a good sign."