meeting with geriatric patients

Supporting the Aging Population: MSWs and Geriatric Social Work in North Carolina

Written by Helen Lewis

In 2020, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) predicted that the population of state residents above the age of 85 will increase by a shocking 116% over the next two decades.

The NCDHHS assessment placed the elderly community as growing more than two times as much as any other age demographic in the state. If they’re right, elder care in North Carolina is going to become more important than ever—and still, many of the complexities of getting older tend to be overlooked until they can no longer be ignored.

The Challenges of Aging: The Circle of Life

As people navigate the later stages of life, they are likely to face a myriad of challenges that are new to them, from health to finances, safety, and feelings of purpose and community.

Aging inevitably means a decline in physical health, though some will experience this more acutely than others. Conditions such as arthritis, osteoporosis, and heart disease can lead to mobility issues and a higher susceptibility to chronic illnesses, affecting the overall well-being of the elderly, and often requiring specialized care and attention.

Mental health is no less important. As individuals age, they may encounter cognitive decline, memory issues, or even neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s, which is now the fifth leading cause of death among senior citizens in North Carolina. These conditions not only impact the elderly individuals directly but also pose challenges for families and caregivers, including emotional distress, such as anger, anxiety, and grief. Addressing the mental health needs of the aging population—as well as for those who care for them—becomes crucial to ensuring a holistic and compassionate approach to their care.

Financial insecurity is yet another significant challenge facing the elderly. For those who are in retirement and may have limited income sources or savings, many seniors find it difficult to meet the rising costs of health care, housing, and basic necessities. The strain of financial challenges can impact a senior’s access to essential services, diminishing their overall quality of life and contributing to feelings of frustration and demoralization.

Additionally, seniors can be vulnerable to elder abuse. Whether it takes the form of physical, emotional, or financial mistreatment, elder abuse is a distressing issue that can occur within families, care facilities, or even in the broader community at large, such as through phone, e-mail, and wire fraud schemes. The vulnerability of the elderly, particularly those who may be isolated or dependent on others for care, makes them susceptible to exploitation. Addressing elder abuse involves not only creating awareness but also establishing robust protective measures and support networks to ensure the safety and dignity of the elderly population. Tackling this challenge requires a collective effort from communities, caregivers, and policymakers to foster an environment where the elderly can age without fear of harm or neglect.

Finally, social isolation is a prevalent concern within geriatric communities, particularly as their mobility diminishes or when they lose friends and family members. Loneliness can contribute to mental health issues and exacerbate existing health conditions. As elderly people may struggle with physical or mental health, connecting with others becomes increasingly challenging. As such, it is vital for communities to foster inclusive environments and support systems for the elderly that can help combat the effects of social isolation.

Loneliness Among the Elderly: The Unspoken Epidemic

Loneliness is a pervasive and pressing issue that can significantly impact health and overall well-being, and which is particularly pervasive among senior citizens.

As individuals age, they may face various life changes, such as the loss of a spouse, friends, or family members, retirement, or physical limitations, contributing to a sense of social isolation and a lack of purpose.

The emotional toll of loneliness is profound, and can lead to adverse effects on mental health, including depression and anxiety. Research has also shown that loneliness is linked to some severe physical health risks, including blood pressure and heart disease and premature mortality.

Social workers play a crucial role in addressing this issue by offering emotional support and companionship to the elderly, helping to mitigate feelings of isolation.

One contributing factor to loneliness is the digital divide, where some elderly individuals may lack the skills or resources to engage with modern communication technologies that could help them more regularly talk to friends and family members.

Social workers can intervene by providing older people with technology training and facilitating their access to virtual platforms, such as Zoom, WhatsApp, and FaceTime. By doing so, they empower the elderly to connect with loved ones, bridging the gap between physical distances and fostering meaningful social interactions. This approach not only addresses loneliness but also enhances the overall quality of life for the elderly.

Community engagement is another key strategy employed by social workers to combat loneliness for senior citizens. By organizing social events, support groups, or recreational activities, social workers can create opportunities for seniors to build new connections and strengthen existing relationships. For instance, a social worker might initiate a weekly gathering at a local community center—such as a choir, book club, or educational course—bringing together elderly individuals to share experiences, interests, and companionship. These communal efforts contribute to a sense of belonging and can foster meaningful new friendships.

Moreover, social workers advocate for age-friendly policies and environments that promote social inclusion. This includes initiatives to make public spaces accessible and welcoming for the elderly, as well as programs that encourage intergenerational interactions. By addressing the root causes of loneliness and implementing targeted interventions, social workers play a vital role in enhancing the social connectedness and overall mental health of the elderly, fostering a sense of purpose and community in their later years.

How Social Workers Can Help: Providing Support and Resources

Social workers play a crucial role in addressing the unique challenges faced by the elderly, employing a range of skills and interventions to enhance their well-being.

helping elderly man walk

One primary way social workers contribute is by providing emotional support and counseling. Many elderly individuals grapple with feelings of grief and anxiety, and social workers can offer a compassionate ear and guidance to help them navigate these complex emotions. For instance, a social worker might work with an elderly person who has recently lost a spouse, providing grief counseling and facilitating connections to support groups for shared experiences and emotional healing.

Additionally, social workers are adept at assessing the diverse needs of the elderly and connecting them with appropriate community resources. This includes coordinating access to health care services, financial assistance programs, and transportation services. For example, a social worker may collaborate with local agencies to ensure that an elderly person with limited mobility has access to home health care services, and that they are able to receive necessary medical care without having to navigate transportation challenges.

Social workers also play a vital role in advocating for the rights and dignity of the elderly. In cases of potential elder abuse or neglect, social workers can intervene, conducting assessments and working with law enforcement or protective services to ensure the safety of the elderly individual. Advocacy may also involve addressing systemic issues, such as compiling reports for policymakers regarding affordable housing options or improved access to mental health services for the elderly.

In essence, social workers serve as instrumental allies for the elderly, utilizing their expertise to address emotional, social, and practical aspects of their lives, ultimately promoting a more dignified and fulfilling aging experience.

Specific Skills MSWs Will Need to Support the Elderly

In the realm of gerontological social work, a diverse set of skills is essential for Master of Social Work (MSW) professionals to provide effective and compassionate support to the elderly, such as:

Technology and Geriatric Care

The integration of technology in social work has proven to be a transformative force in enhancing the quality of services provided to the elderly population. One notable application is the use of telehealth services, which allows social workers to conduct virtual sessions with elderly clients, ensuring access to counseling and support even in remote or homebound situations.

talking with older patient at home

This technology-driven approach not only breaks down geographical barriers but also accommodates the unique needs of elderly individuals who may face challenges in traveling to traditional appointments. For instance, a social worker can engage in regular video calls with an elderly client to provide counseling and ensure that they are receiving all of the care and resources that they need.

Technological tools also facilitate better communication and coordination among health care providers and social workers involved in the care of the elderly. Electronic health records, for instance, enable seamless information sharing, ensuring that all professionals involved in an elderly individual’s care are well-informed and can collaborate effectively. This not only streamlines the care process but also enhances the overall quality of support provided.

Additionally, wearable devices and smart home technologies can be employed to monitor the health and safety of elderly individuals, allowing social workers to intervene proactively in case of emergencies or changes in health status.

However, it’s essential to approach the integration of technology in social work with the elderly mindfully, considering factors such as digital literacy and accessibility. Social workers play a pivotal role in bridging the technological divide, providing guidance and support to elderly individuals in adopting and utilizing relevant technologies. This includes offering training sessions, ensuring user-friendly interfaces, and addressing concerns related to privacy and security. By leveraging technology thoughtfully, social workers can amplify their impact, reaching and assisting a broader spectrum of the elderly population while respecting their unique needs and preferences.

Tech Literacy and the Risk of Fraud

As technology continues to advance, so does the risk of elderly individuals falling victim

to fraud. Whether it’s limited familiarity with online platforms, trust in seemingly genuine interactions, or potential cognitive decline, the elderly are particularly vulnerable to these types of potentially dangerous attacks. Scammers commonly exploit these vulnerabilities through emails, text messages, fake websites, and fraudulent phone calls, preying on the elderly’s lack of experience in discerning deceptive digital tactics.

One prevalent form of fraud targeting the elderly involves phishing scams, where perpetrators use deceptive emails or messages to trick individuals into revealing sensitive personal information such as passwords, social security numbers, or financial details. For instance, a scam email may appear to be from a legitimate institution, urging the recipient to click on a link and provide login credentials, ultimately compromising their accounts. Social engineering tactics, such as posing as a trustworthy entity or claiming urgency, are particularly effective in manipulating elderly individuals who may not be tech-savvy enough to recognize the warning signs of cyber fraud.

Additionally, fraudulent phone calls, commonly known as “vishing” (voice phishing), pose a significant threat to the elderly. Scammers often impersonate trusted entities like government officials, banks, or healthcare providers, convincing the elderly to disclose sensitive information over the phone. These tactics exploit the natural inclination of older individuals to trust authority figures, putting them at risk of financial exploitation and identity theft. Addressing this issue requires not only increased awareness among the elderly but also educational efforts within communities and families to empower them with the knowledge and skills needed to recognize and avoid falling prey to technology-based fraud.

Social workers can play a pivotal role in protecting elderly individuals from falling victim to these harmful and evolving forms of theft.

Through educational initiatives, social workers can provide training sessions to enhance digital literacy skills among an elderly community, teaching them to recognize common scams, phishing attempts, and deceptive online practices.

Additionally, social workers can advocate for and implement community-based programs that create a supportive environment for seniors, emphasizing the importance of sharing information about potential scams with their peers. By fostering a sense of community and equipping the elderly with the tools to navigate the digital landscape safely, social workers contribute to a protective network that mitigates the risk of fraud and empowers older individuals to engage with technology confidently and securely.

Furthermore, social workers may collaborate with other professionals, such as law enforcement and cybersecurity experts, to stay updated on emerging threats and ensure a comprehensive approach to safeguarding the elderly from technological fraud.

Intersectionality and Elder Care

According to the 2020 Census, nearly 79% of North Carolina residents over the age of 65 are white. Simultaneously, 10% of North Carolina’s senior citizens are living below the poverty line.   

Intersectionality in elder care recognizes that the experiences of elderly individuals are shaped not only by their age but also by various intersecting factors such as race, gender, socioeconomic status, and cultural background. Understanding and addressing these intersecting dimensions are crucial for providing holistic and equitable care to the diverse aging population.

For example, elderly individuals from marginalized racial or ethnic groups may face unique challenges in accessing quality healthcare and support services. Social workers specializing in elder care must be attuned to the cultural nuances that influence health beliefs, preferences, and practices. By incorporating cultural competence into their practice, social workers can ensure that care plans are respectful, inclusive, and tailored to the individual needs of each elderly person.

Socioeconomic status and gender further complicate the intersectionality of elder care. Elderly individuals with limited financial resources or limited financial literacy may face barriers in accessing essential services, including healthcare, housing, and adequate nutrition. Social workers play a crucial role in navigating these challenges by connecting elderly individuals with available resources, advocating for affordable housing options, and addressing systemic inequalities that impact their well-being.

In essence, an intersectional approach to elder care requires social workers to recognize and respond to the complex interplay of various identity factors. By adopting inclusive and culturally competent practices, social workers contribute to a more equitable and compassionate elder care system that recognizes the unique needs of each individual, ensuring that aging individuals from all walks of life receive the support and care they require to live with dignity and fulfillment.

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