Aging/Gerontology Social Work Guide - 2022

Last Reviewed: June 16th, 2022

If you’re considering a career in social work, one of the biggest decisions you’ll make is which segment of the population to work with. After all, social workers help everyone, from babies in need to older adults who want to live their best life possible. However, as you probably already know, it’s nearly impossible to work with everyone that needs help. While some social workers, like those who work in a hospital, have clients throughout the lifecycle and across socioeconomic classes, this is uncommon.

One of the major social work specialties is working with older people. This is referred to as gerontology or “aging” social work. Many people find this job very rewarding, but it isn’t for everyone. For instance, if you would have trouble dealing with families that are about to lose their loved one, then you might reconsider. 

This career guide will look at gerontology social work in detail. We’ll discuss the type of work you can do, how to get into it, and what you can expect from a career.

Who do gerontology social workers help?

The term gerontology refers to people over the age of 65. In most cases, the primary client for a gerontology social worker will fit this description. However, these aren’t the only people a social worker in this field will work with-or even help. Often, the social worker will work with the families of their client, caregivers, and any other supports that the client may have. They’ll also coordinate with outside resources.

How can a gerontology social worker help their clients?

While many gerontology social workers have specific jobs, it’s more typical to help older clients with a wide variety of issues. In particular, the NASW identifies several general service areas within gerontology. Each of these helps an older adult, and if applicable their families or caregivers, better navigate the realities of aging.

Healthcare advocacy

While most American seniors have access to Medicare, there are still some options they may need to consider. For instance, in some situations a Medicare Advantage plan might be advantageous because of better coverage in a particular area. Or, they might need help applying for Medicaid or navigating the world of health insurance denials. Social workers will assess what each client needs and help them get it.

Aging in place

These days, aging in place is a popular concept. That’s because healthy seniors like to grow older in their homes, or move to a smaller, independent living situation. Retirement communities and assisted living are less popular now, especially because they can be isolating and expensive. However, as people get older they often have problems with mobility, increased health problems, and other challenges. A social worker can help support their clients navigate these changes in several ways:

  • Help organize home modifications, such as wheelchair ramps or chair lifts.
  • Find help for the client, such as housekeeping support.
  • Implement strategies to keep the client safe, even when left alone for extended periods. This often involves high-tech tools like emergency call buttons or monitoring.
  • Assist older adults with technology gaps so they can do more things independently.

Assist with housing and economic challenges

Older adults who have retired typically have a fixed income. Sometimes this leads to problems affording food, rent, or medication. A gerontology social worker can connect clients with resources, including government programs like Medicaid or food stamps, that will help meet these challenges. And, in some cases a client may need to move, either because their current housing becomes too expensive, or because it can’t be modified to meet their mobility or other needs.

Here’s an example. A lot of adults who live in the city have apartments or townhomes that they’ve lived in for years, often decades. While current law requires new homes to be wheelchair accessible, older homes may be exempt from this requirement. In addition, the oldest buildings often don’t have elevators, creating a challenge for seniors who live on the top floor. When a client is unable to leave their home easily, a social worker can help that person find a home that’s more suitable.

Dealing with life’s transitions

While most people embrace retirement as a time to pursue their interests and enjoy any grandchildren they might have, not everyone is so lucky. For example, the current addiction crisis means that more older adults are parenting their grandchildren. Parenting is often challenging even for a younger adult, but an older one can really struggle. A gerontology/aging social worker can help clients adapt, both by connecting them with resources and even providing advice.

Help navigate legal problems

Another problem that older people face is legal challenges. This is true especially if they begin to parent again, if they get a divorce, become widowed, or need government assistance. A gerontology/aging social worker can help find the right legal help for their client and otherwise assist during that challenging time.

Coordinating with the client’s family, friends, and other service providers

Strictly speaking, we call this “case management.” A gerontology/aging social worker can help an older adult ask for, and accept, help from their family and friends. Many families are happy to help their parents, grandparents and other relatives to age gracefully, often becoming their live-in caregiver (or moving the relative in with them). Social workers can help ease this transition in many different ways, like coordinating services and helping get adults “set up” in their new surroundings.

Finding the right assisted living, nursing home, or hospice

Finally, an aging or gerontology social worker will help a client and their family navigate the transition to more intensive medical care. This might mean finding the client a facility that meets their needs, which can be an assisted living or nursing home. For clients who are at the end of their lives, a social worker can also arrange for hospice care. Along the way, they’ll not only help with facility placement, but also work with the families and existing service providers.

What traits do aging or gerontology social workers share?

Here’s the thing: not everyone should pursue this occupation, even if they want to work with older adults. There are several traits that a successful gerontology social worker should possess, even before they go into training. This helps ensure that they are a good “fit” for the job and will be happy with their career choice.

Empathy and compassion

Social workers in general must be empathetic and compassionate. Most clients are going through a difficult chapter of their lives, or they wouldn’t need help from a social worker. However, just because someone needs help doesn’t mean that they will trust the social worker. Showing empathy will help you build rapport and foster trust over time. This way, you can do your job more effectively.

Second, you need to be compassionate. Clients of a gerontology social worker need to know that the person on the other side of that desk really care about them. Yes, there are boundaries. But within ethical standards, it’s critical that you have genuine compassion for your clients and their families. People know when you’re just a number (or paycheck) to them, even if you don’t express it.

An ability to organize and coordinate services

Most social workers have a lot of clients, each of whom need regular case management. For this reason, experts recommend that social workers have, or develop, good organizational skills. This includes both an ability to keep themselves and their files organized, but also to help ensure that care providers and relatives can coordinate effectively.

Active listening and critical thinking skills

People in distress like to know that they’re truly being listened to, and as a result you’ll get more cooperation and information-when you listen. Besides this, social workers need to pick up on clues from what people aren’t saying. For instance, a client might not reveal pertinent information because they forget. And, in some situations there are undercurrents with family dynamics that can alter the client’s needs and their service plan. Active listening can help you sift through these issues more easily.

An ability to advocate for your client

Lastly, social workers are first and foremost advocates for their clients. Whether your client needs help applying for Medicaid, a way to stay in their home for longer, or even help caring for their aging partner, there’s often more to obtaining these services than simply filling out forms. For instance, home healthcare agencies might not work with your client’s medical coverage, or the insurance company might decline a claim. Either way, it’s extra time on the phone.

Diplomacy and tact

As a gerontology social worker, you may find that family members, friends, and other stakeholders disagree about the best interests of your client. And, while in most cases the client can make their own decisions, there will still be well-meaning people who want to interfere. Using diplomacy and tact, you can help to mediate these disputes or, at minimum, enforce the client’s wishes.

What will you learn in a gerontology social work BSW program?

If you’re getting a BSW, you’ll undoubtedly have “distribution” or “core” requirements, like math and English. However, your major will be social work and you’ll take a lot of social work-related courses. In addition, you’ll have some type of practicum. These are some example classes for social work majors:

  • Policy and programs: Covers the public policy issues surrounding social work, both generally and gerontology-specific. For instance, you’ll talk about issues like adult guardianship, long term care, Medicaid, and kinship care.
  • Social welfare: How can the vulnerable among us expect to be protected by society, and what ideals should we work towards as social workers.
  • Human behaviors: Considering how people interact with each other, both in an ideal world and when dealing with challenges, such as discrimination or poverty.
  • Sociology: How do societies change and adapt?
  • Specialty course, in this case on aging: What specific challenges does a particular demographic face, and how to address them.
  • Ethics: How should we behave as social workers, and how does this influence our practice.
  • Practicum: Go out there and apply what you’ve learned under supervision.

As you can see, the BSW covers a wide variety of topics relating to society and how social workers can be of help to a vulnerable person. Besides this coursework, you’ll also learn to develop the hard and soft skills that are more general, like active listening and organization, that we discussed in the last section.

A Master of Social Work (MSW) is somewhat different

Like all master’s degrees, an MSW assumes you already have a bachelor’s degree, and therefore you don’t have to take distribution requirements. However, the courses are also different. For example, you’ll likely take a class on research methods, and learn some clinical skills. For gerontology, this also means specializing in aging-related issues much more intensively.

Perhaps the biggest difference between a BSW and an MSW in gerontology is the scope of practice. Typically, you’ll only need a BSW to work on practical issues like Medicaid enrollment and obtaining home modifications to keep your client aging in place. However, if the client is suffering from trauma, being subjected to abuse, or coping with mental illness, chances are that someone with an MSW should step in. And as always, your employer and your state’s laws regarding social work practice would apply.

How does a gerontology social worker help their client within the bounds of public policy?

There are a lot of scenarios that gerontology social workers deal with. However, a common one is getting an older adult some practical help so that they can stay in their home for longer. For example, a lot of people have trouble with simple tasks that are relatively demanding, such as housework, laundry, or cooking. Adults who can’t perform these essential tasks need support from others, whether this is through volunteer help like Meals on Wheels, a paid housekeeper, or even an elder care agency.

However, someone needs to coordinate these services, and in addition, they’re often expensive. Home health agencies, for instance, can cost a fortune. So can housekeepers and personal care assistants. Worse, these services aren’t always covered by health insurance, and if a senior also has a limited income, this cost can be a burden.

A geriatric social worker would step in and fill the gap for these vulnerable adults. They’d find the help that their client needed, and then find a way to pay for it. One example might be the department of aging for the client’s home state. In addition, charities and volunteer organizations can step in to help. With the right social worker-coordinated assistance, the client can continue to live their best life in their own home.

How stable is a career in gerontology social work? How much can you expect to earn?

Although you’re probably considering a degree in social work because you care about the people around you, career stability is still a concern. After all, everyone needs to pay the rent or mortgage and other necessary bills, have fun, and save up for retirement. With that in mind, what can a social worker expect in terms of earnings and job prospects? Let’s look at the statistics for answers.

The need is growing

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), jobs in social work are expected to grow 5.5% from 2018 to 2028. This works out to over 78,000 job openings annually, including the need to replace social workers who retire or change careers. In addition, this figure represents faster growth than the average across all professions.

Considering the demographic shift in America, this probably isn’t surprising. As the University of Florida points out, in 2050 we can expect 1 in 5 Americans to be 65 or older, which is the demographic that gerontology social workers help. And, these older Americans can expect to face many of the same challenges that previous generations have, such as reduced mobility and mounting economic pressures.

You can make a decent living as a social worker

While you won’t make as much your first year, the average gerontology social worker can expect to make around $63,010 (Bureau of Labor Statistics - 2021). However, this is an average across all specialties. Gerontology social workers are classified by the BLS as “all other social workers.” Their average salary is $20,000 more on average. Healthcare social workers, a related field, make slightly less than their gerontology counterparts.

How does this stack up to other professions? There’s no question that the salary above won’t make you rich. However, it’s a job that has a high level of job satisfaction because social workers feel good about helping others. With that said, the average non-management annual wage in the United States is around $45,000. This means you’ll do better than average as a social worker.

Several types of employers hire gerontology social workers

Because several types of employers need gerontology social workers, there’s a decent amount of flexibility within this career path. For instance, here in the US there are many public agencies that help to protect older adults, often called “adult protective services” or something similar. Many jurisdictions also have a “department of aging,” which helps to support older citizens to age in place by providing referrals to services and other supports. Also, most medical centers, retirement homes, nursing homes, home healthcare agencies, and long-term care facilities have a gerontology social worker on staff. Finally, different community organizations will often employ social workers that cater to their target demographic.

In practice, the diversity of employers means that a gerontology social worker has plenty of opportunities to find the perfect niche. Some social workers prefer to work to keep seniors in their homes, while others are happy to help once clients are no longer able to do so. Of course, you can also try different areas of gerontology social work and see what you like best.

Final thoughts

Aging or gerontology social work is a demanding field, not least because of the complexity that some older adults must deal with. However, there are many different career paths even within this field, and one thing they all have in common is a high level of job satisfaction. Fortunately, government figures indicate that this is a stable field with reasonably good earning potential and job security.