Several years ago, Covid-19 started spreading throughout the world, and countries told their citizens to go home and stay home.
People who lived alone, many of whom were elderly, were stuck in a situation where they couldn’t leave their homes and were unable to have anyone visit them. Those same individuals who had regular mental health checks and visits from social workers could no longer let them into their homes and only had the internet to communicate. Unfortunately, most elderly clients are not tech-savvy enough to have a computer or use it for virtual communication.
One problem that Covid-19 restrictions exacerbated was the social isolation experienced by so many people, especially the elderly. Social workers see the negative effects that isolation can have on a person and their roles have expanded to ensure their clients don’t get lost or forgotten.
Considering the lockdown over the last few years, the need for social workers has never been greater as there are more people in need than ever before. Although younger individuals could connect virtually with each other, the elderly did not grow up with the level of technology we enjoy today, which can make them feel even more isolated.
Responsibilities of a social worker
Social workers are an integral part of the services provided by communities and can be a lifeline to those who have no family or are unable to leave their homes.
The role of a social worker can be broken down into five main responsibilities, although there can be many other activities outside of these responsibilities. Social workers must have the proper qualifications and degrees to provide mental health care to elderly clients.
This step involves knowing the client on different levels to determine the best way of working with the individual to affect positive change. Gathering information about certain personal, societal, and organizational characteristics helps social workers get a full view of the client.
- Family dynamics
- Medical history
Another important area that a social worker will explore is the history the client has had with the mental health system, along with any previous contact with authority figures such as police, other social workers, the court system, and hospitals.
Understanding what the client wants to address or change and how they can go about it is an important part of the treatment plan being created.
Once the client has been assessed, the social worker can use their expertise to create an effective treatment plan. The plan should address the client’s main issues. In the case of social isolation of the elderly, the treatment plan could include community resources such as meals on wheels. For elderly individuals with greater mobility, a vacation such as a cruise for other retirees could be one part of the treatment plan.
There may be organizations with volunteers who can visit the client on a regular basis to provide companionship and do simple tasks. Another part of the treatment plan might include the social worker’s follow-up schedule with the elderly client. It is crucial for the plan to be created jointly with the social worker and the client so that both are invested and engaged. The treatment plan is a fluid document and can change when circumstances in the client’s life evolve.
Social workers are adept at knowing and using the proper resources for their clients to get the most from their treatment plans. Taking care of these individuals involves more than just talking to them and visiting them every so often. Clients benefit from resources such as:
- Food banks
- Healthcare clinics
- Unemployment services
- Social assistance programs
A social worker may also refer to other professionals to assist their clients, such as doctors, dentists, and other specialists who are knowledgeable about problems experienced by the elderly. With so many elderly people existing in social isolation, a social worker’s job has become much more challenging, and more help is required to get clients the services they so desperately need.
Social workers themselves are an invaluable resource, and most dedicate their lives to their clients by researching and furthering their education. If social work is something that interests you, you can look at educational options such as online MSW programs in New York with an accredited online school such as Keuka College. An online master’s degree in social work will provide the necessary skills to reach your goals and start a rewarding career helping people in your community.
The population of elderly clients is constantly growing in the United States. Resources and programs that focus on the negative impacts of social isolation are becoming increasingly important, as are the roles of professionals trained to deal with these problems. Social workers with advanced education in these areas are valued and integral members of the community who can help their clients create the right plan to live enriched and satisfying lives.
Monitoring the improvement of the client is the next step in the system and can be the most rewarding one as well. When a social worker implements a treatment plan, there are no guarantees that the plan will improve the client’s situation or that it will be followed. When there is improvement in the client’s circumstances because of a well-executed plan, that is a cause for celebration.
The plan is constantly being evaluated every time the social worker and client meet for updates. Sometimes, abrupt changes to the plan are needed due to changing circumstances or crises that occur. A good social worker is flexible enough to roll with the changes and able to create a new plan to help the client get back on track again.
For social workers, being an advocate for those who are unable to speak for themselves is what makes this profession a calling rather than a job. When social workers advocate for individuals, they are looking to improve resources that help their clients enrich their lives.
Social workers advocate in several ways:
- Advocacy for an individual
- Advocacy for a group
- Advocacy within an organization and community
- Advocacy in policy or research
Social workers work with policymakers and organizations to change policies, improve social conditions, improve programs, and develop services that will help improve the lives of their clients and others in that social group.
The social work profession
Social work is projected to experience a 9% growth rate between the years 2021 to 2031, which is above average according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. The profession is a gratifying one, and while it is very challenging, those who choose this path find personal satisfaction in helping those who need it. Social workers help clients navigate the ups and downs of their daily lives and guide them down the right path.
Some tasks that social workers are responsible for include:
- Supporting parents with the emotional challenges of adopting a child.
- Helping a professional navigate a new career.
- Working with someone who is trying to exit an abusive relationship.
- Helping someone overcome an addiction.
- Providing support to someone contemplating divorce.
For each client, the social worker will follow the five steps that fall into the categories:
- Creating and implementing a treatment plan
- Securing resources
- Monitoring improvement
- Acting as an advocate
The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) describes the difference between social isolation and loneliness as: “Social isolation is objective, with measurable factors like the size of one’s social network, the frequency of contact with that network, availability of transportation, and the ability to take advantage of support resources.
Loneliness is more personal and subjective — that is, how people perceive their experience and whether they feel they lack the connections, companionship, or sense of belonging that we need as humans.”
With life expectancies increasing, the older population is falling victim to social isolation, and it has become one of the nation’s emerging issues. With age comes the loss of vision, hearing, dexterity, and mobility.
Simple activities like grocery shopping and doing the laundry can become difficult and even painful. With social isolation rising in our older populations, so do the negative impacts, such as:
- Greater mortality rates
- Increased susceptibility to illness
- Depression and other psychological disorders
- Cognitive impairment
- Elder abuse
- Vulnerability to scams
- Reduced likelihood of surviving unforeseen events such as natural disasters or extreme weather conditions
Social workers are on the front lines of the elderly’s struggle with social isolation and are in a unique position to see these circumstances unfold. When social worker sees the potential for social isolation in their elderly clients, they can assess it and devise a plan to mitigate its negative effects.
When students of social work are studying the root causes of social isolation, they will learn that these consist of:
- Physical status
- Living environment
- Threats to security
- Life-changing events
The elderly will often find their faculties diminishing, such as eyesight and hearing. They may also start to struggle with physical impairments like a loss of dexterity and balance. These physical ailments can make people feel unsafe outside of their own homes and unwilling to venture outside, especially in inclement weather.
These physical issues usually come with a loss of independence, like not being able to drive anymore.
Even the design of the community that the elderly person lives in may become difficult to navigate and not very accessible. For those who don’t have many resources close to them, this can contribute greatly to social isolation and the inability to obtain necessities.
Many elderly Americans live in rural areas with greater poverty rates and few resources nearby. The lack of community support and standard amenities such as grocery stores, community centers, and pharmacies make living in these areas especially challenging for older adults. With a lack of amenities comes a dismal lack of transportation options as well.
Threats to security
With diminished faculties and physical challenges, many elderly clients may feel unsafe walking out of their own homes. They may choose to stay safe behind a locked door rather than venture out into the world to get needed items.
Unfortunately, people make assumptions about older adults and often tell them that they are too old to do certain things. This may become a self-fulfilling prophecy as the elderly may grow tired of fighting for their independence or purpose and give up.
Life-changing events such as retirement, the death of a spouse, divorce, or loved ones moving away can drastically change the opportunities older adults have to leave the house and get around. When there is a major event like a spouse dying and that spouse was the one who drove everywhere, the surviving spouse is left without any options.
Social workers understand these factors and how the lives of their elderly clients can be dramatically changed by one single event. With the increase of elderly clients in rural and metropolitan centers, the role of social workers has become much more complex, and there is a greater need for these professionals.
Interventions for social isolation
Unfortunately, many older adults do not look for resources within their communities for help, and the issues they experience get worse. The pandemic also increased the anxiety levels of many elderly clients who may not feel safe leaving their homes.
These challenges in mobility and isolation come with negative impacts on an individual’s physical and mental health, making the social worker’s role more challenging. Feelings of depression can bring on feelings of apathy and an unwillingness to take any steps to improve the condition.
Social workers struggle with improving the lives of their clients while experiencing pushback from the client themselves due to mental health issues.
Professionals in social work can engage their clients in the following ways to help improve their situations:
- Increasing personal contact: Volunteers can be engaged to visit the client if there are no family members or friends available. Even an occasional short visit can significantly improve the physical and mental well-being of an older adult who lives alone.
- Group activities: These activities can be as simple as a discussion on a shared interest as well as a low-impact activity such as playing cards or board games. If the group meets at a certain location and can arrange for a volunteer or another member to collect the older client, they will be more likely to attend.
- Contact with animals: It is a scientific fact that petting a dog or cat can bring on feelings of relaxation and help reduce high blood pressure. Comfort animals are trained to provide warmth and affection to those in need. A connection with an animal can be made with the elderly client and walking, feeding, playing, petting, or grooming activities can help stimulate the older adult’s mind.
- Skills instruction: Instructions are given to elderly clients to help improve social skills and make new friends.
- “Eden” philosophy: The older adult interacts with animals, plants, and children daily to improve their outlook on life.
- Reminiscence: This can be done in a group setting where clients share their memories and discuss a subject of interest.
- Peer support groups: A group of participants meets to discuss challenges and needs.
- Music: Clients listen to music from their era, radio programs they enjoyed in their youth, and other serials.
- Social assistance: This includes fitness programs, arts programs, social activities, leisure, transportation, access to resources and information, and consultations with medical professionals.
These are some of the ways social workers can combat social isolation in their elderly clients and help them open their social lives. By helping clients fight social isolation, social workers can improve their clients’ lives well into the future.
Social work and the elderly
The above interventions can be facilitated by social workers who play critical roles in the lives of their older clients.
These professionals can also play a much broader role by educating the public, researching, and encouraging organizations in the community to look at the role they play in helping solve the problem of social isolation among older adults.
Social workers are in a unique position to teach private and public policymakers about the dangers of social isolation and what resources can be created to help the problem.
The role of the social worker is much more complex and broader in scope than it was a few years ago before the pandemic caused lockdowns. Today, older clients are more anxious about stepping out of their homes because of the risk of illness or safety concerns, and that makes it difficult to reach some of them.
Social workers are in greater need than ever before because the elderly population is increasing, and resources and programs are in higher demand. The profession is anticipated to grow by 9% in the next 10 years, which is above average.
Through education and experience, social workers can apply their expertise to help their elderly clients improve their lives and work toward eradicating social isolation for good.