WASHINGTON – As her elderly client lay dying in a semi-conscious state,social worker Susan Fleischer murmured to him as a nurse held the phone to his ear.
For days,family and friends gathered around the man,who was in his 90s,believing he could no longer hear or speak. But Fleischer,a licensed clinical social worker,knew that the man needed encouragement to let go of his life.
What she didn't know until later,was that her client was trying desperately to mouth words to Fleischer,the care manager he had come to know and trust. He died two hours later.
“It still gives me chills when I think about it,” said Fleischer,executive director of Rona Bartelstone Care Management and Home Healthcare,headquartered in Fort Lauderdale,Fla. “We enable senior citizens to end their lives with peace,grace and dignity.”
Social workers are constantly behind the scenes of stories like these. Helping the most vulnerable people find access to human services and medical treatment can be heartbreaking but essential work,she said.
But Fleischer is one of a decreasing number of social workers,despite projected increases in the number of people who need their services. A national study released this month by the National Association of Social Workers,shows students aren't willing to break into a profession based in hospitals,shelters and the country's poorest,urban areas.
“These are people on the front lines of human safety,” said William Bell,president of Casey Family Programs,a foster care organization. “They see issues like child abuse,a lack of affordable housing,senior citizen neglect and the eroding fabric of the most challenged communities.”
There is already a growing shortage of social workers who help the elderly,an alarming trend considering the aging of the baby boomers and the lengthening of the average life span. According to a survey of 10,000 practicing social workers,12 percent plan to leave their jobs in the next two years.
The number of people over 65 will double to 71.5. million by 2030,and the number of people over 100 will triple,according to Tracy Whitaker,NASW director.
“They need quality care just like every other human being,from the smallest example of smiling and calling the person by their name in a nursing home,” Fleischer said. “Seeing the change in their attitude from that small acknowledgment is the best work you can do.”
Geriatric social workers are especially adept at coordinating care,such as daily meals,dressing and bathing,for senior citizens whose relatives are living farther away than ever. Even now,the report found,17 percent of agencies have vacancies and 21 percent said those jobs are hard to fill.
With fewer professionals available to help the elderly gain access to health care and legal help,Fleischer said the nation is facing a crisis.
“The job is a very challenging job because the social worker has to understand not only the emotional and clinical side but the biological side as well,” she said. “You're getting to know all sides of who they are.”
But that's not the only challenge facing social workers. According to the study,more than half of social workers,especially those working with children and their families,endanger themselves regularly while on the job and many become discouraged with agencies that limit professional growth and don't adequately compensate workers.
And social work students might cringe at learning they'll have to deal with senior citizens,who in the later stages of life can be depressed,lethargic and dependent on others.
Fewer students are graduating with masters or doctoral degrees from the country's 614 accredited programs,Whitaker said. Even fewer take specialized classes in geriatric and child care.
But there is hope for the profession. Whitaker and other social workers believe the key is in awareness and education.
She said the NASW is working to add social work programs to schools around the country. Twenty master's degree programs and 18 bachelor's degree programs are awaiting accreditation.