Social Work Skills for Working With the Elderly

Senior woman waiting for her social worker

Social work skills for working with the elderly must be cultivated and pursued in order to provide the best care possible for this generation.

Differing Goals

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 lifetime's worth of damage.

However, Adult Protective Services is also 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.

If you choose to be a social worker for our eldest citizens rather than our youngest ones, 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.

Necessary Social Work Skills for Working with the Elderly


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 of the education you need. However, many universities have begun to realize the importance of training social workers in the challenges facing all demographics, so hopefully it will be easier to find employment.

Personal Skills

To work with the elderly, one must have compassion and patience. 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. While the majority of senior citizens are a joy to know, just like any people group, there is always a rough patch. Furthermore, if an individual is the victim of abuse or neglect, this may amplify the negativity in their personality. Another trait necessary is the ability to deal with severe mental illness. Many people in nursing home environments are there because of dementia, Alzheimer's, or some other mentally debilitating illness that requires constant care. For this reason, many patients are fearful and confused. It is vital the social worker is able to discern between what is fact and fiction in this person's mind, while having the gumption to take on the challenge of dealing with the individual's unintentional inconsistency.

Professional Skills

Academically and professionally, there are various social work skills for working with the elderly that must be obtained. As mentioned earlier, those who will find the most success in the field will be those who earn a master's in social work (MSW) degree.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

Review more information from the University of Michigan MSW program.

You will also need to acquire skills you may not have anticipated, such as interacting with the individual's family members or dealing with a grief situation if one of your clients has recently lost a spouse.


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.

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Social Work Skills for Working With the Elderly