That makes the graying of America a concern for everyone from travel agents to architects.
Social workers are no exception. The National Institute of Aging estimates that 60,000 to 70,000 specialist social workers will be needed by 2020 to work with older populations, which is a 40 to 50 percent increase from the current number of gerontological practitioners.
Binghamton University is at the vanguard of a movement to address these needs. With new programming and partnerships, the University hopes to help swell the ranks of social workers who specialize in geriatrics, just in time to help the nation cope with an expected tsunami of aging baby boomers in need of social supports.
“Social work looks at the person’s relationship with the environment, and what’s going on that either supports or places obstacles in his or her way,” said Laura Bronstein, chair of the Department of Social Work in Binghamton’s College of Community and Public Affairs.
Most social workers are drawn to child and family practice, but research has shown that when graduate students are exposed to geriatric clients, as well as given extra support and training related to working with this segment of the population, it motivates them to work in this field.
“This is where the jobs will be because it’s where the clients will be,” Bronstein said. “Whether it’s a school where the grandparents are raising grandchildren, or the aging prison population, social workers are increasingly serving older adults in every institution where they practice.”
Unlike other master of social work programs, in which students spend each of their two years of internship in a single field placement, some of Binghamton’s graduate students spend one year in placements at various social service agencies or community organizations.
They spend one day a week at each of two different agencies during the academic year, and research has shown that this type of exposure nurtures the future pool of geriatric specialists if the placements involve elderly clients. “It’s as much developing interest as expertise in working with older adults,” Bronstein said.
The New York Academy of Medicine’s Social Work Leadership Institute provided this model of rotational field placements, and the Hartford Partnership Program for Aging Education awarded Binghamton University’s social work program a $75,000 grant over three years. This money and matching funds raised by the department provides $5,000 annual stipends plus tuition to graduate students. It also pays for a parttime supervisor with a master of social work degree to work with students who are placed in agencies that do not have such a professional on staff.
“Students report that field placement is the most important part of their education, so this money is a wonderful incentive for students to explore geriatric social work,” Bronstein said.
The New York Academy of Medicine started looking at access to health care a decade ago and discovered most people had difficulty navigating the system. Those consumers who were also elderly and/or had chronic illnesses found it nearly impossible, said Patricia J. Volland, the academy’s senior vice president for strategy and business development.
“We realized there was already a group of professionals — social workers — who could link social service systems to health care, but weren’t trained to do this type of work for that particular population segment,” she added.
The academy’s educational model proposes three unique features that the Binghamton program has adopted:
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