The Aging Poor: How Social Workers Can Help

As the fastest growing population in the country, older adults face both opportunities and challenges. The support of seniors, especially those who are low-income, is an important consideration for social workers. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Administration for Community Living, America’s older population — those 65 years and older — numbered 46.2 million, or 14.5 percent, in 2014. That’s about one in seven Americans. This number is expected to rise to 21.7 percent by 2040 and continue growing to about 98 million by 2060.

The doubling of our older population in the next 50 years is significant, but equally, if not more important to the field of social work, is that based on a population survey done in 2014, almost 4.5 million older Americans (10 percent) were living below the poverty line, and an additional 2.4 million (5.3 percent) were categorized as “near poor.” Not surprisingly, the seniors most impacted are women and minorities, and their numbers will likely increase in the coming years.

While living in poverty is a challenge no matter your age, older adults who live in poverty struggle with an array of issues unique to their phase of life, such as “rising housing and health care bills, inadequate nutrition, lack of access to transportation, diminished savings and job loss,” according to the National Council on Aging.

How Can Social Workers Help?

Social workers play a critical role in advocating for our growing senior population, in particular those living in poverty, and offer support for physical, psychological, social and/or economic concerns. From providing direct services to influencing policy decisions, the field of social work is committed to serving the needs of the older population and promoting greater quality of life with increased independence and dignity.

Let’s explore some specific programs that offer social workers opportunities to help low-income seniors:

Individual Support

On the micro level, there are a host of direct services that social workers can provide to low-income seniors. The Administration on Aging, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, provides services with funds issued by the federal government. Its programs are far-reaching and include assistance with transportation, adult day care, health promotion and providing support for caregivers.

The National Council on Aging provides EconomicCheckUp, the largest, most comprehensive free online resource geared toward empowering senior citizens in areas such as managing money and finding employment.

The Office of Nutrition and Health Promotion Programs, which falls under the umbrella of the Administration on Aging, provides health, prevention and wellness programs including nutrition support, behavioral health care and chronic-illness management.

Community and Larger-Scale Support

The Administration on Aging also has a Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program that advocates for residents of nursing homes who could not otherwise speak for themselves. This program assists in resolving problems for individuals as well as working at the local, state and national levels to improve care and quality of life.

The Office of Elder Justice and Adult Protective Services, an agency of the Administration on Aging, provides, manages and leads the development of the Adult Protective Services, which is dedicated to providing a well-coordinated response in situations where older adults are victims of abuse. 

The National Council on Aging’s Center for Benefits Access helps organizations find programs for disabled and low-income seniors. They address a far-reaching suite of issues, including falls prevention, money management, chronic disease and home equity. Macro social workers can also align with this agency around elder justice and take advantage of their advocacy toolkit.

There are many more organizations with programs for seniors that provide assistance to those who may need mental health support, or advocate for such programs on the state or federal level:

The Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging (Cleveland, Ohio) provides services that focus on keeping individuals healthy, safe and in their home environment. In particular, Benjamin Rose offers assessment, counseling, case management and consultation from social workers in order to maintain a senior’s independence.

Springwell (Waltham, Massachusetts) is a nonprofit that creates, coordinates and manages care for older adults, both with and without disabilities. In particular, Springwell offers care advice and planning for clients and their families and focuses on creating personalized care plans and support for caregivers.

Aging with Dignity (Tallahassee, Florida) aims to safeguard the dignity of people as they age. The organization helps provide advocacy at the state and federal levels to protect the rights of individuals’ power over their end-of-life care. The organization also provides workshops and direct services for aging individuals and their families. Finally, Aging with Dignity provides information and support systems throughout the aging process to clients and their families.

The USC Edward R. Roybal Institute on Aging (Los Angeles, California) provides information to the community about healthy aging; partners with organizations providing resources and programs for aging, low-income minorities; and conducts research that leads to new evidence-based interventions that improve the lives of older adults around the world.

The USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work has reorganized its curriculum to offer four departments of study, including an Adult Mental Health and Wellness department. Coursework is focused on enhancing the mental health and physical well-being of young adults to seniors and explores areas such as health and wellness, substance abuse and recovery, behavioral health care, and integrated care and the Affordable Care Act. Learn more about the MSW@USC’s Department of Adult Mental Health and Wellness.

What are your thoughts on how social workers can help address this issue? Comment below and join the conversation.