Education & Training
Social workers are health professionals committed to enhancing the well-being of individuals, families, groups, communities, and societies, with a particular focus on those who are most vulnerable. Social workers who specialize in gerontological social work value interprofessional, team-based, person-centered care in community-based and institutional settings. They have expertise in working with—and on behalf of—diverse older persons across individual, family, community, and societal spheres of influence. Gerontological social workers use a strengths-based framework as they engage older adults and their families; as they assess a wide range of care needs; and as they develop, evaluate, and revise mutually agreed on care plans over time. Short-term social work interventions include informing older persons and their families about community resources, assisting them in applying for services, and facilitating care transitions. Long-term gero social work interventions include coordinating care and addressing challenges and opportunities as they arise over a period of months, years, and sometimes decades. Working with older persons and their families to complete important paperwork such as advance directives is an important component of both short- and long-term interventions.
Social workers often begin their training in undergraduate degree programs leading to a Bachelors of Social Work (BSW). More than 700 universities offer BSWs, and about 500 of them are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. Though each BSW program is unique, all focus on developing generalist-level competencies, and most involve a deep commitment to exploring social behavior and public service. Community planning, social welfare, mental health, public and health administration, and governmental affairs are among the topics addressed. As BSW students explore the functions of social service agencies and how social work contributions lead to better lives for members of the community, some begin focusing on gerontology.
The more than 240 accredited Master’s in Social Work (MSW) programs offer another avenue for entering the field, and provide practicing professionals an opportunity to expand their theoretical and practical understanding of social work by developing specialist-level competencies in a particular practice area such as gerontology. Full-time graduate programs typically run for two years and require students to complete one or more field practicums. Depending on the MSW program, students may be able to choose a clinical or non-clinical focus, which changes the scope of coursework.
Examinations & Licensure
Licensing for social workers can be obtained at the undergraduate level in some states, but most states require a Master’s degree or additional higher level training. The highest level of practice—independent licensure—requires a period of post-Master’s supervised practice.
Some social workers pursue voluntary specialty certifications through the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). The Social Worker in Gerontology (SWG), which can be obtained post-BSW, requires candidates to have completed a concentration in gerontology or to have completed 20 hours of relevant continuing education. SWG candidates become eligible after working with older adults, under appropriate supervision, for three years (or for 4,500 hours).
Master's-prepared gerontological social workers may pursue the Advanced Social Worker in Gerontology (ASW-G) credential, which requires two years of experience and completion of relevant continuing education. Social workers at either level comply with NASW Standards for Social Work Services in Long-Term Care Facilities.
Regardless of one’s road to licensure or one’s specialty, continuing education is an essential component of a social worker’s career—one that is likely to be especially rewarding for those specializing in gerontology and learning from—and aging with—older men and women.
With thanks to Marilyn K. Luptak, PhD, MSW