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Age-Old Questions
January 28, 2019


Image of elderly people walking The School of Social Work Provides Leadership for an Aging Society

By: Melissa Kvidah Reilly 

According to the U.S. Census, the country is on the brink of a seismic population shift: by 2030, all Baby Boomers will be older than age 65, meaning that one in five Americans will be retirement age and, for the first time in our nation’s history, older people are projected to outnumber children (1). 

Today, more and more researchers and innovators in the field of social work are harnessing the resources and diversity that the aging population brings to the table. At the School of Social Work, faculty members are stepping up to focus their research on policy and practice around long lives, and the school itself is doing more than ever to prepare its students to address this great demographic change. 

Key Findings

Associate Professor Karen Zurlo, whose research focuses on the economic security of older adults, has recently examined the link between income adequacy and mental health. “We learned through one study, which is pending publication, that adults between the ages of 55 and 64 have more challenges than their older counterparts when it comes to income adequacy and depressive symptoms,” she says. “Mid-aged adults are challenged by the costs of housing, maintaining gainful employment, financing their children’s college education, caring for their parents, and managing their own healthcare needs. In combination, these life circumstances negatively affect one’s mental health.” 

Zurlo’s research shows that the older members of society—those born prior to World War II—tend to be more frugal and focused on saving and planning as compared to their younger peers. As a result, the oldest among us will have a more financially secure retirement (yielding better mental health and fewer depressive symptoms) than Baby Boomers, or those born between 1946 and 1964. 

Not surprisingly, Zurlo’s research has also illuminated a need for financial education among older adults. Unlike previous generations, which benefited from employer-managed pensions, today’s retirees must be personally responsible for managing their retirement accounts and planning for retirement. “Older adults claim to be financially literate and active consumers of financial education and advice, but many are not,” she explains. Mid-aged adults often are not aware of the financial expenses they will have in retirement, or don't know what steps to take to secure a sound retirement, Zurlo adds. Programs like Social Security and Medicare provide significant supports to their beneficiaries, but can be difficult for older adults to navigate and obtain maximum program benefits.  

There is also a need to reassess the infrastructure in place for this population, says Associate Professor Emily Greenfield, whose research focus is largely on those who remain living in their communities, as opposed to moving to retirement neighborhoods, assisted living communities, or other similar living arrangements. “The fact is that most people remain living in the community in later life,” she says. “So it’s a big question for advocates, policy makers, social workers, family members, and older people themselves how we can make these environments better to support people aging in place.” 

Greenfield’s research on age-friendly initiatives indicates that supporting aging in place is about so much more than access to medical treatment or a senior center alone. “We’re starting to think about how the physical infrastructure can facilitate a good quality of life for this population,” she says. This means assessing available transportation, housing, health and social services, opportunities for social inclusion, civic engagement, and information and communication. What it all comes down to? Choice. “The aging population is not a homogenous group,” Greenfield says. “Take communications, for example. A senior center may think they’re meeting the communications needs of their audience by offering a weekly newsletter. That may work well for some, but there are likely volumes of other people for whom Facebook, word of mouth through a church, or other ways would work better.”

In addition to her research on communities, Greenfield also is studying how inequalities from childhood influence people’s experiences of later life. With support from the National Institutes of Health, she is using survey data from one of the longest running cohort studies in the U.S., which has followed the high school class of 1957 in Wisconsin for about 60 years. “As it turns out, the more privilege you have in childhood, the more cognitive advantages you are likely to have, even 50-plus years later,” she explains. “This research shows the continued importance of breaking down silos between research and policy on children and research and policy on older adults.”

In this way, social workers are in a prime position to make a difference. 

Changemaking at SSW

As trained professionals in tune with issues of inequality and diversity, social workers can get involved in their communities on behalf of aging populations and offer suggestions and improvements to better serve these populations. How? “Act locally and think bigger than that,” says Greenfield. “What social workers experience in their work on a day-to-day basis connects with systems-wide impacts at the organizational, community, regional, statewide, national, and global levels. There are patterns here, and social workers experience those patterns and have so much to offer at all these broader levels.” She recommends that social workers get involved through their professional organizations and also raise the visibility of social work and aging in their own private networks. The key is working within the formal and informal networks available, and sharing ideas, information, and possible solutions.

At the School of Social Work, one solution is the MSW Certificate in Aging and Health, which garners about 10 percent of the students enrolled in the master’s program. But with the need so immense, why not more? “Students may not realize that the things they have interest in are affecting older adults,” says Jeanne Koller, the certificate’s program coordinator. For example, those who want to work with veterans will find a large cohort in the older adult population, as will those who want to work with people diagnosed with AIDS/HIV and other chronic diseases, or affected by sexually transmitted diseases or addiction -- two areas not only often publicized, but which increasingly impact the aging population.

“There’s a misconception that people can’t change if they’re over a certain age,” says Koller. “But the truth is that they face the same mental and physical issues as younger folks, and in some ways a 66-year-old may be more interested in talking and receiving help than a 16-year-old.” Indeed, opportunities for graduates of the certificate program abound, from those in hospitals, hospice, assisted living, and skilled nursing programs to those in community programs, elder abuse services, and the government.

“There is a large need for this focus,” says Koller. “The popularly of the certificate program has been steadily increasing, and those who choose this path are very committed. Social work is a helping profession, and students want to have a positive and real impact on their clients lives. Working with older adults—often, a very appreciative population—meets that need.”


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