Profiles in Social Work
Promoting Gerontological Social
Work on a National Stage
Betsy Clark, Ph.D., ACSW, M.P.H.
The National Association of Social Workers, headquartered
in Washington, D.C., is the largest professional organization
of social workers in the United States, with more than
150,000 members. Headed by Executive Director Dr. Betsy
Clark, the organization's mission includes setting standards
for social work practice, providing social workers with
continuing education, and actively promoting the practice
of social work.
One of the NASW's most important current missions is
to address the growing shortage of social workers trained
in gerontology. "In 1987, the NIA predicted that
we would need 70,000 gerontology-trained social workers
by the year 2010," says Dr. Clark. "But we
currently have fewer than 30,000 social workers working
full- or part-time with the elderly, and of those, only
about 3,000 are professionally trained in gerontology."
Dr. Clark joined the NASW as Executive Director in
2001 after a career in oncology social work and cancer
care. She was eager to work on a national level to bring
about broader change. Although cancer continues to be
an ongoing focus for Dr. Clark, who recently introduced
programs on cancer awareness and cancer care to NASW
members, she has also retained a decades-long interest
in working with older adults. Her first job as an undergraduate
B.S.W. candidate was to collect social histories of
residents in a local nursing home. "At that time,"
says Dr. Clark, "residents were viewed as a homogenous
group of elderly. The more I worked with them, the more
I realized how unique and different each person was.
Since then, I have always kept an interest in gerontology."
Under Dr. Clark's leadership, the NASW has been very
interested in gerontology as well. As part of an internal
initiative on aging, the organization is attacking the
shortage of gerontological social workers on several
fronts. Members already working in aging can stay up
to date by joining the Specialty Practice Section on
Aging, which provides a website, newsletters, and other
publications on trends and news in gerontological social
work. Social work professionals who work with family
and professional caregivers have access to a web-based
continuing education project jointly sponsored by the
NASW and the American Society on Aging. The NASW also
sets standards for practice settings relevant to aging,
such as Long-Term Care Facilities and Palliative and
End-of-Life Care. To recruit more members to the practice
of gerontological social work, the NASW provides published
information, such as the upcoming book Productive Aging,
a planned book series on gerontological issues, and
a brochure outlining job opportunities in gerontological
social work, called "Gerontological Social Work:
Aging in a New Age."
On a national level, the NASW is closely engaged in
the struggle to convince policymakers of the need to
address the upcoming inadequacies in care for our booming
population of older adults. In addition to employing
six full-time people in lobbying and political affairs,
the NASW participates in more than 50 coalitions among
social work, social justice, and health organizations.
"There are 48 professional social work organizations
in this country," says Dr. Clark. "We need
to coordinate our efforts better, and if we can do that,
I think we'll start making the progress that we need.
When you bring different groups and professions together,
you have much more impact." Key coalitions include
Patients in Peril, which works to alleviate upcoming
shortages in health professionals trained in aging,
as well as groups working to improve psychosocial care
within long-term care facilities, such as the National
Citizens' Coalition for Nursing Home Reform, Campaign
for Quality Care, and the National Coalition on Mental
Health and Aging.
Recently, the NASW has taken an active role in the
National Leadership Coalition, a new, informal coalition
working to win public funds for social work education
in gerontology. To help bolster the coalition's case,
the NASW is conducting a workforce study of practicing
social workers. "We are very interested in surveying
the social work workforce, not just our members,"
explains Dr. Clark. "We want to understand where
people are working, what they see as the issues that
are coming, and how they think we should prepare."
NASW also played a key role in bringing the shortage
of gerontological social workers to national attention
by working with Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) to insert
language into a Senate appropriation bill encouraging
the Department of Health and Human Services to study
and report on future needs for social workers in long-term
care services. Dr. Clark has also testified before the
Senate Special Committee on Aging on the key role scholarship,
stipend, and loan forgiveness programs can play in recruiting
students to gerontological social work. "It's no
secret that young social workers think they do not want
to work with the elderly," she says. "That's
a perception we have to change."
Dr. Clark believes the importance of gerontology training
for all social workers cannot be overstated. The Age
Boom looms. "Social workers," she says, "are
not going to be able to practice in the future without
understanding the special issues of older populations.
We need to take action now."
Updated on November 18, 2010
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