Social Work Skills for Working With the Elderly

Gabrielle Applebury
Contributor: Tamara Warta
Caregiver and elderly person

Social work skills for working with seniors must be cultivated and pursued in order to provide the best care possible for this generation. The skills you need to work with seniors as a social worker will depend on the type of work you plan to do.

Necessary Social Work Skills for Working With the Elderly

If you choose to be a social worker for elderly citizens, you are up for a challenge. You must be willing to cultivate specific skills both personally and academically to succeed at your goal of working either with APS or with a non-profit that protects and serves the elderly population.

Education

Working with the elderly demands a level of education that can be daunting to pursue. A social worker often must have a master's degree to achieve certain levels of career advancement, and additional education is mandatory to maintain licensing. Due to the shortage of resources for adult-focused care versus child-focused situations, you may have to relocate to obtain all the education you need. However, many universities have begun to realize the importance of training social workers in the challenges facing all demographics. The coursework for this may include the following:

  • Human Differences, Social Relationships, Well-Being, and Change Through the Life Course
  • Organizational, Community, and Societal Structures and Processes
  • Foundation Skills for Social Work Practice
  • Basic Social Work Research
  • Introduction to Social Welfare Policy and Services
  • Adulthood and Aging
  • Policies and Services for the Elderly
  • Policies and Services for Adults
  • Evaluation in Adults and Elderly
  • Social Work with the Elderly
  • Death, Loss and Grief

Personal Skills

To work with the elderly, one must have compassion and patience. It's also great to have:

  • Thick skin: Having a younger person come in to help or evaluate a situation can seem demeaning to some older people. You may be called names or told you are "too young" to understand their situation.
  • Kindness: If an individual is the victim of abuse or neglect, this may amplify the intensity of some of their symptoms. Knowing how to treat them respectfully while seeking appropriate help immediately makes for a great social worker.
  • Empathy: Many people in nursing home environments are there because of dementia, Alzheimer's, or some other debilitating illness that may require constant care. Because many patients are fearful and confused, it is vital that the social worker is able to understand the patient's point of view, while having the gumption to manage the individual's unintentional inconsistency.
  • Personable: Some patients may find it difficult to trust their social workers. Being thoughtful and engaging can help you connect with your patients while making them feel more comfortable.

Professional Skills

social worker, mother and son

Academically and professionally, there are various social work skills required for working with the elderly. Earning a master's in social work (MSW) can give you a leg up on others applying for similar positions.

You will also need to acquire skills you may not have anticipated such as:

  • Interacting with the individual's family members in a courteous and calm manner
  • Dealing with a grief-related situation if one of your clients has recently lost a spouse
  • Being prepared to report elder abuse to APS
  • Seeking out appropriate training to stay updated in the field
  • Having the patience and kindness to work with someone who has Alzheimer's and may be confused and forgetful with increasing frequency
  • Knowing when to ask for help if you feel overwhelmed or triggered by any given situation
  • Having enough insight to understand when you are not the best option for working with a certain type of client
  • Understanding self-care and prioritizing your mental health so you're fully prepared for work

Differing Goals for Working With Seniors

When you hear the term "social worker," you probably think of a child welfare worker. Social work has long been associated with Child Protective Services and various non-profit organizations that work to better the lives of children and remove them from abusive situations that can cause suffering and a lifetime's worth of damage. Social workers can also work with the elderly population and have a positive, significant impact on their lives.

Adult Protective Services

Adult Protective Services (APS) is an important entity in the field of social work. Unfortunately, APS is understaffed in some counties throughout the United States, and some cities still do not even have an APS department. Cases of nursing home abuse and neglect have increased in recent years, and the influx of reports and media attention on the issue are finally giving APS the focus it deserves. Working for the elderly as a social worker is an admirable job if at times a thankless one.

Cultivating Appropriate Skills

With a winning combination of professional preparedness and personal passion, working as a social worker for the elderly can be a rewarding career you will embrace for years to come.

Social Work Skills for Working With the Elderly