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Social Work and Elder Justice: A Mutually Essential Relationship

By Chris Herman, MSW, LICSW

March 18, 2021
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As a college student, when I started working with older people, elder abuse was far from my mind. Over time, though, I realized that elder abuse was a widespread problem. Decades later, elder justice has become a central focus of my macro-level work at the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) to enhance social work practice with and social policy affecting older adults.

NCEA and NASW are currently celebrating Social Work Month with the theme Social Workers Are Essential. I believe this theme has two equally important implications for elder abuse: one, that social workers are essential to the elder justice movement; and two, that working to prevent and address elder abuse is an essential responsibility for all social workers, regardless of specialty or setting. Each implication is worth exploring.

In my work with NASW, I continue to learn about—and from—the numerous ways in which social workers not only help prevent and address elder abuse, but actually serve as leaders in the elder justice field. One such trailblazer, Georgia Anetzberger, honored two others, Bonnie Brandl and Risa Breckman, in her February 2021 NCEA blog, and I’m thrilled that NCEA honored all three in its recent Lights of Joy Campaign.

Yet, multitudes of social workers—many whose names are unknown on a broad scale, but whose work is no less valuable—strive daily to prevent and respond to elder abuse. As the backbone of the Adult Protective Services (APS) system, social workers investigate situations of suspected elder abuse and intervene to mitigate elder abuse. However, social workers also prevent and respond to elder abuse throughout the Aging Network, health systems (including mental health and substance use services), housing services, the intimate partner violence (IPV) movement, and the crime victim assistance movement, as well as in community-based social service organizations of all types. They develop, manage, and staff elder abuse prevention programs, emergency housing programs for people who have experienced elder abuse, long-term care ombudsman programs, and adult guardianship programs. They work with older people who have experienced intimate partner violence, sexual assault, and stalking. They develop and teach courses and trainings addressing elder abuse as part of degree programs, ongoing professional development programs, and community awareness initiatives. They advocate for elder justice policy on the local, state, and federal levels, in Tribal Nations, and in U.S. territories. They conduct research on many aspects of elder abuse. They are integral members of elder abuse multidisciplinary teams and forensic centers, coordinated community response teams, and interdisciplinary health care teams. In fact, collaboration with other disciplines—and, often, other organizations and systems—is vital to social work. Likewise, Social Work Month is a good time to learn about, reflect on, and honor the essential contributions social workers make to elder justice in each of our work settings.

At the same time, many social workers operate in roles and settings that do not focus on elder abuse. Those social workers can, and do, still play an essential role in the elder justice movement. Social workers in direct service settings often help equip their colleagues to identify and respond to potential signs of elder abuse. Regardless of setting, social workers can explore and strengthen the role of elder justice in their work. For example, when seeking or administering program funding, social workers can address the primary role of social isolation in elder abuse, and such information can also be incorporated by social workers in policy realms. Social work educators can incorporate information about elder abuse in their courses. Social workers can establish or enhance World Elder Abuse Awareness Day observances. They can deepen systemic capacity by seeking education from and collaboration with colleagues and organizations with expertise in elder abuse prevention and intervention. Although consideration of appropriate actions for any organization is a team effort, social workers can help put (and keep) elder justice on the radar.

Whatever their role or setting, social workers (and other disciplines) can enhance their elder justice knowledge, skills, curricula, programs, and advocacy by drawing on readily available resources such as (to name a few) NCEA’s numerous publications and tools; the Council on Social Work Education’s Elder Justice Curriculum Models for MSW Programs; the video library and Lifting Up Voicesproject of the National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life; the Quick Clipsvideo series of the New York City Elder Abuse Center; programs offered by federally funded Geriatrics Workforce Enhancement Program sites; professional journals and newsletters; continuing education (CE) offerings of the 55 NASW chapters; and programs of the Social Work Online CE Institute.

The social work profession and the elder justice movement share a mutually essential relationship. During Social Work Month, let’s celebrate and deepen our investment in both.

Chris Herman, MSW, LICSW, has served as Senior Practice Associate–Aging at the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) for 14 years. In this capacity, she analyzes and advocates for aging-related federal policy, creates resources to enhance social work practice with older adults, and provides technical assistance to NASW leaders, members, and the public. Chris also represents NASW in numerous national coalitions and initiatives focused on aging, including the NCEA Advisory Board and the Reframing Elder Abuse Committee. She is a coauthor, with Georgia Anetzberger and six other social workers, of NASW’s “Family Violence” policy statement, recently published by NASW Press in Social Work Speaks (13th ed.). Her latest NASW publication, Social Work Roles in Elder Abuse Prevention and Response,will be available on the NASW website this spring.

Before joining the NASW staff, Chris worked directly with clients for nearly 15 years, specializing in aging and health. She thanks Georgia, Bonnie, and Risa for sharing with her and NASW members their expertise in and deep commitment to elder justice.

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