Social Workers Prepare for the Big Gray Wave

The statistics are sobering. By 2020, the number of Americans over the age of 65 will double, from 35 million to 70 million. 

“This is an aging society,” says Zvi Gellis, associate professor in the School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2) and director of the Center for Mental Health & Aging. “Many, many developed countries are aging. So it’s an issue of how do we take care of older people when they need help. Because there are numerous problems.”

Those numbers and problems explain why Gellis and SP2 have launched the Penn Aging Concentration, a new program for the school’s MSW candidates designed to develop a new cadre of social workers specializing in geriatric practice. Contrary to popular opinion, that field is not limited to doctors and nurses.

“When you look at the numbers of professionals working in mental-health care,” says Gellis, social workers top the list. They also provide a lot of social services to the aged.

Using a Hartford Foundation grant and a matching gift from William Meyer W’71, a member of SP2’s board of overseers, Gellis and the school are designing a one-year program for a cohort of five to 10 students each year. Those selected will have geriatric field internships and rotate through various positions at community-based senior centers, VA hospitals, and retirement communities, as well as working at the policy level with organizations like the AARP or the Alzheimer’s Association.

“We’ve got all of these 80- and 90-year-old parents who don’t want to go to assisted living, don’t want to go to a nursing home, and they have all of these questions,” says SP2 Dean Richard Gelles. “There aren’t enough gerontological social workers to meet this flood of demand that’s going to come along. So these guys [the students] are in the right place at the right time.”

Dean Gelles tells a story that illuminates the problems facing seniors and the help that social workers can provide. “My mother-in-law’s 93,” he says. “She had her second heart attack in Florida. My wife, who has two master’s degrees and a bachelor’s degree, flies down to take care of her mother. Her mother wants to stay in her mobile home, and she needs physical therapy because she has a torn rotator cuff. She has about 16 medications.

“So my wife calls me and says, ‘What am I going to do? I don’t even know where to start!’” Gelles recalls. “I said, ‘Call the hospital social worker. They deal with old people. They know what to do.’ She calls me back an hour later, and says, ‘That was a great suggestion! Her physical therapist can come; Medicare is going to pay for this; the therapist is going to come to the house, the nurse is going to come to the house three times a week to monitor her medication. She knew everything!’”

Gelles pauses, and allows himself a hint of a smile at his wife’s new appreciation for his profession. “Duh!” 


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