It was with great excitement that I went back to my alma mater, Columbia University School of Social Work, eight years after I graduated with my MSW to speak to their newly formed Student Aging Caucus. My presentation, The Future of Social Work and Aging, traced my academic and professional history as a geriatric social worker and detailed the need to attract more social workers to the field of aging.
Back in 2000, my class comprised about 350 students, and I was one of the 17 who chose aging as our “field of practice.” At that time, to specialize in aging meant taking 1.5 courses in aging. As a student who purposefully pursued an advanced degree to work with older adults, I was woefully disappointed by the limited curricular offerings as well as the pervasive ageism in the student body. With fingers crossed, students hoped they didn’t draw a first-year field placement working with older adults. “Not a nursing home” was their ubiquitous mantra.
While our peers ignored demographic trends and followed one another into their (seemingly automatic) social work roles with children and substance abusers, we 17 found great solace among one another. The numbers support our choice of specialty: The US Department of Health and Human Services estimates that by 2020 there will be a need for 70,000 geriatric social workers. There are currently only 13,500. Jobs in geriatric social work are projected to grow by 45 percent–faster than all other occupations combined through 2015. Yet tragically, only four percent of social workers specialize in aging. Four percent!
Despite this, most social workers, regardless of specialization, will be working with older adults, at least in some capacity. Nearly three-quarters–73 percent–report doing so now. Are our country’s older adults receiving quality care? With the vast majority of social workers grossly unprepared to care for our rapidly increasing aging population, the answer may be grim.
Imagine my surprise when I returned to Columbia and was greeted by almost 100 social work students who were interested in aging. They were brought together by the enthusiastic leader of the Aging Caucus, Lauren Polakoff, and Assistant Professor Dr. Vicky Rizzo, a Hartford Social Work Faculty Scholar and the director of Columbia’s Hartford Partnership Program in AgingÂ Education. It was incredibly heartening to see engaged students, faculty, the dean, and staff from community-based organizations all convened to hear about theÂ future of aging and social work.
Dr. Rizzo detailed six scholarships available to aging-focused social work students and then announced the launch of Columbia University’s School of Social Work Aging Web site. As she navigated us through the brand new site chock full of aging resources, I secretly wished that I was back in school. I almost heard myself audibly complaining, “Back in my day, when we had to walk four miles uphill both ways…”
It was then I recognized this is a great time to be a social work student. Amazing opportunities await geriatric social workers.