Aug 17, 2023

A career working with older adults meets a critical need, and social workers who choose this path say it is important and rewarding.

The Older Adults Behavioral Health Network (OABHN) conducted interviews with providers in the field about different roles, the challenges of ageism and the ways that their work is fulfilling.

Kathy Kuhn works at the Boston University Center for Aging & Disability Education & Research. "Over 40 years ago when I was studying social work at BU, the federal administration on aging was so concerned about having enough geriatric social workers, they gave full scholarships to ten BU social work students to study gerontology. While this cohort was initially not interested in aging, once exposed to the field, everyone loved it, including me. Yet, to this day we still have a hard time attracting people to this work. We continue to need to develop interest and incentives to bring new social workers to this rewarding field."

Kuhn's observations are reflected in studies that show both high rates of social work job satisfaction once in the aging field and hesitancy to enter it. For ReFraming Aging educator Melissa Donegan, this is no surprise. "Research shows that by the age of 3, Americans already have negative assumptions about aging. We see aging as binary and something we want to avoid. We take measures to keep our appearance young. We view older adults as senile and are surrounded by jokes and negative messages about getting older. When the country spends money on the young it is viewed as an investment, but when we advocate for older adults it is seen as an expense."

The workforce shortage means there are many opportunities available in the public and private sectors. Social workers can work in hospitals, integrated care programs like Senior Care Options (SCO) or PACE; nursing homes, assisted living or community-based organizations like Aging Servies Access Points (ASAPs) or Councils on Aging (COAs). They can also work for government agencies or non-profits focusing on advocacy and policy changes.

Courtney2

Courtney Johnson, LICSW, Somerville Cambridge Elder Services

Community-based social workers like Courtney Johnson are passionate about helping people age in place and find creative solutions to meet this goal. Johnson is a clinical social worker on the Elder Mental Health Outreach Team at Somerville Cambridge Elder Services. She supports older adults facing challenges including chronic illness, mobility issues, housing loss, financial struggles, and social isolation. As someone who is Latinx and Spanish-speaking, she is a lifeline to some of the most marginalized older adults: those who are non-English speaking. She gives this advice to young people who may worry about having less life experience than their clients:

“Come in with an open heart and be ok with not knowing everything.”
Courtney Johnson, LCSW at Somerville Cambridge Elder Services
Mbita

Mbita Mboa, professor at Salem State School of Social Work and therapist working with older adults

Mbita Mbao is a professor at Salem State School of Social Work and a therapist working with older adults. Mbao brought aging courses back into the curriculum in hopes that students will rise to meet the need. "1 in 4 people will be over 60 in 2030. This is a population that is going to need a workforce that is adequately trained." Mbao dispels myths about aging in her academic and clinical roles: "Older adults face the same challenges that all adults face, like anxiety, depression, sense of belonging, affordable housing, substance use, or navigating how to date using digital platforms."

A common thread among all the people we interviewed is the way the experiences, wisdom, and resilience of their clients enrich their own lives. Says Mbao: "I learn from them as much as they learn from me."

About the Authors:

Cassie Cramer is project Director, Older Adult Behavioral Health Network at Massachusetts Association for Mental Health (MAMH). Anderson Lamberto-Wilson is a student at Simmons School of Social Work.

Tips for Job Seekers:

This article was originally published in the National Association of Social Workers - Massachusetts (NASW-MA) Social Work Voice (Summer 2023).

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