Social workers critical to care for baby boomers


More professional workers are needed to serve larger numbers of people

More than 77 million Americans are considered part of the baby boom generation. Adults born between 1946 and 1964 have the distinction of being the largest generation, representing 27% of the population. With the aging of baby boomers and the lengthening of life spans, both the number and proportion of older people are rapidly increasing.

Organizations must begin to prepare now for the increase in patients in the coming years. As baby boomers age, there will be mounting pressure on medical facilities and social service agencies to provide services to a larger number of people.

The National Association of Social Workers' Center for Workforce Studies recently completed its first national study of the licensed social work labor force. While the final results of the study will not be available until later this year, preliminary findings show that the supply of professional social workers may not be sufficient to meet the demands of aging baby boomers, a group for whom health and social concerns likely will lead to an increase in medical needs and hospital visits.

Social work professionals help patients examine their options and guide them through their health concerns. They also understand the impact of a diagnosis on the patient and others who play a critical role in the coping and care giving process. With the assistance of a social worker, many patients find that coping is easier and institutions recognize a cost savings when many of the emotional and social needs are met.

As an integral member of the interdisciplinary healthcare team, social workers are unique among health professions in that they consider the physical, emotional, social and financial issues important to individuals-a perspective that is essential to providing quality services to older adults and their families.

Generally, social workers provide a thorough psychosocial assessment, which allows the team to understand the patient and family and to develop appropriate and culturally relevant strategies for treatment and follow-up. They present counseling options to the patient, while engaging the person's family as a support system. The social worker is also an asset in discharge planning and in developing follow-up plans that help the patient transition to life after treatment. When necessary, the social worker can work with a grieving family to provide bereavement counseling if a patient dies. Social workers can help families understand and manage all stages of a patient's stay in the hospital, and after they can prevent unnecessary rehospitalization.

Professional social workers often speak about connecting their patients to the resources they need. Top healthcare administrators know how important this service is to patient care. At the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, social workers created a Patient Education Center where patients and their families can access library materials, take classes about medical conditions and join support groups. This type of center also affords social workers the ability to do further problem assessments and targeted interventions. Baylor All Saints Medical Center in Texas has hired Spanish-speaking social workers to serve the growing Hispanic community. In Kentucky, social workers at the Hospice of the Blue Grass work with patients and their families, and provide a calm and supportive environment as they make difficult advanced care decisions.

Healthcare administrators and other executives, in the coming years, will be faced with the challenge of serving an increasing population of aging Americans. All departments and systems of the organization will be challenged to maintain quality care, while keeping costs low. Achieving success for each patient, while maintaining or improving the bottom line, requires that the entire medical team be committed to delivering holistic, efficient and consistent care. Social workers are an essential part of this equation.

The 100-year-old values of medical social work-social justice, respect for patients and families, and commitment to quality care-complement the goals of most modern healthcare organizations. Providing social work services to patients of all ages makes good business sense-and the return for providing such help to seniors is particularly significant.

Elizabeth J. Clark is the National Association of Social Workers' executive director

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