This guide is a deep dive into what it takes to become a geriatric social worker. This guide will explore what a geriatric social worker does, the education and experience necessary to become a geriatric social worker, and the job and salary outlook for the future.
What is a geriatric social worker?
According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), in the field of gerontology, “…the primary goal of the social worker is to address the specific challenges of the aging process by promoting independence, autonomy, and dignity in later life. Social workers in gerontology must be knowledgeable about unique legislation, policies and social programs that affect older adults. In addition, they must be knowledgeable about the aging process and the issues older adult[s] and their caregivers face, adept at accessing resources for clients, and strong advocates who champion their rights.”
Geriatric social workers help seniors navigate life’s challenges as they also deal with the complex realities of aging. From a biopsychosocial perspective, geriatric social workers assist their clients with services ranging from case management to resource referral to treatment planning. Geriatric social workers also provide advocacy for their clients and the senior population at large. Some may even work on management and policy level to improve services and legislation for seniors.
Some social workers may choose to provide counseling and therapy for seniors. This level of service will require additional certifications that are discussed below.
Becoming a Geriatric Social Worker
1. Obtain a bachelor’s degree. Entry level geriatric social work positions will require a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW). If you plan to go straight for your master’s degree in social work, then your bachelor’s degree does not necessarily need to be in social work. However, to go straight into a social work position after graduation you will need a BSW. There are many other careers that work directly with the elderly, but to be a social worker requires a social work degree.
2. Obtain a master’s degree in social work. Many gerontological social work positions will require an advanced degree. A master’s of social work (MSW) degree will be required for any clinical position, for example. Some programs will offer a specialty in gerontology, so if you know this is the area you want to pursue, it will make sense to closely examine your options.
3. Pursue additional certification. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) offers three gerontological certificates. The Social Worker in Gerontology certificate (SW-G) is available to BSW level social workers. The Advanced Social Worker in Gerontology (ASW-G) is available to MSW level social workers. The Clinical Social Worker in Gerontology (CSW-G) is available to MSW level social workers who have obtained their clinical social work license. This certification is geared towards social workers who want to provide direct mental health services to the elderly population.
4. Find opportunities for real world experience. Senior programs are always on the lookout for volunteers. There are also many job opportunities in senior settings that do not require a social work degree. Some do not require any degree at all. It is a good idea to explore these opportunities not only to show potential employers that you have experience — but also to help you determine if the fields of gerontology and social work are right for you — and what settings may be the best fit.
This is good information to have before committing to a career that requires a significant financial and educational investment. The fields of gerontology and social work also require a significant emotional investment. It is better to know in advance if this is something that is a good fit for you, especially given that there are volunteer and employment options available even for students at the high school level.
Geriatric Social Worker Requirements and Skills
- Bachelor’s degree in Social Work (BSW)
- Master’s degree in Social Work (MSW)
- Needs assessment
- Functional capacity assessment
- Mental, behavioral, and physical assessment
- Case Management
- Care Management
- Family services
- Discharge planning
- Up-to-date understanding of legislation and policy that impacts seniors on the national, state, and local level
- Awareness of unique challenges the geriatric population faces including physical, mental, and social concerns
- Understanding of the process involved with applying for benefits and services, and the ability to assist clients and/or family members through the process
- Knowledge of facilities, programs, and resources for seniors at the national, state and local level.
- Understanding of family dynamics.
Where does a geriatric social worker work?
A geriatric social worker can work in many different settings. These can be broadly divided into health care facilities, residential facilities, community agencies,and behavioral health programs.
Geriatric social workers can also work in legal and legislative settings. A more comprehensive list follows:
- Health care
- Home health care
- Rehabilitation center
- Outpatient medical facilities
- Nursing home
- Long term care facility
- Assisted living facility
- Area agency on aging
- Senior day center
- Recreation center
- Behavioral Health
- Outpatient counseling center
- Day treatment center
- Residential treatment center
- Legal and legislative
- Elder law office
- Advocacy organization
What does a geriatric social worker do?
A geriatric social worker can wear many hats. In a medical setting, a geriatric social worker may act as a liaison between the medical team and the patient, and often their family and/or caregivers as well. The social worker will ensure that in addition to their medical needs, their emotional, social, and practical needs are also met.
In a community setting, the geriatric social worker will often provide case management services. This can range from assisting a client with completing paperwork to apply for benefits to arranging transportation to referrals for medical or mental health services.
In a clinical setting, the geriatric social worker will provide the counseling services directly to the client.
In all cases, geriatric social workers will act as an advocate for their client. This may involve helping the client get into a residential facility or into a day program. It may involve helping a client appeal a benefits decision. It may involve facilitating a meeting with family members to help their client get their needs met.
The advocacy can often reach into larger facility, system, or even legislative areas.
Additionally, geriatric social workers must be able to identify signs of elder abuse and intervene to keep their clients safe.
Geriatric social worker job description
Geriatric Social Workers work in a variety of settings, and the job descriptions will vary depending on the type of system you are involved with. The following list encompasses a general description of knowledge, skills, and abilities that might be required.
- Needs assessment
- Functional capacity assessment
- Elder abuse assessment
- Promote independence, autonomy, dignity
- Information and referral
- Case management
- Care management
- Treatment planning
- Discharge planning
- End of life planning
- Crisis management and intervention
Certificates or special training
While additional certification is not required for employment as a geriatric social worker, the National Association of Social Workers does offer three types of additional certifications.
- Social Worker in Gerontology (SW-G) BSW
- Clinical Social Worker in Gerontology (CSW-G) MSW
- Advanced Social Worker in Gerontology (ASW-G) MSW
The Social Worker in Gerontology (SW-G) certification is available to social workers with a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW). The certification can be earned after three years of full time geriatric social work experience, as well meeting additional continuing education and supervision requirements.
The Clinical Social Worker in Gerontology (CSW-G) certification is available to social workers with a master’s degree in social work (MSW) who also hold a clinical license (i.e. LCSW — licensed clinical social worker — although the title varies from state to state). It requires two years of supervised clinical work with the aging population in an agency or organization. Clinical work includes mental health treatment and assessment.
The Advanced Social Worker in Gerontology (ASW-G) certification is open to licensed master’s level social workers (MSW) who provide non-clinical services to the elderly. In addition, eligibility requires 2 years of full-time supervised work in an agency or organization specializing in services to the elderly as well as continuing education credits in the field of gerontological social work.
Geriatric social worker career outlook
While the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not separate out careers in geriatric social work individually, they note that the field of social work as a whole can expect a 13 percent increase in jobs between 2019 and 2029.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that seniors made up 15 percent of the US population in 2016. They predict this number will continue to rise, reaching 25 percent by 2030. With this increase in the senior population one can expect the need for geriatric social workers to increase as well.
Geriatric social worker salary
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for social workers was $50,470. The survey did not analyze geriatric social work salary in a separate category. However, it did note that for social workers in the healthcare setting the median salary was slightly higher, at $56,750.
As always, the education and experience one brings to the table has a significant impact on earnings. With the predicted increase in the aging population in the coming years, it seems reasonable to expect the salary to increase along with the demand.