Shalamiesha Gilbert ’23 MSW had not thought about using her social work degree to work specifically with older adults until she took a course in Social Gerontology at the School of Social Work (SSW) in the Fall of 2020. During her first year of graduate school, she had interned at an elementary school and enjoyed it. But the gerontology course piqued a new interest.
Then, a chance encounter with one of her professors at the grocery store led Gilbert to sign up for a newly launched Scholars in Aging program at the SSW. A stipend-based internship program, Scholars in Aging prepares Master of Social Work (MSW) students with specialized classroom and field training to serve the growing number of adults aged 65 and older in a range of diverse community and institutional settings.
The School of Social Work established the Scholars in Aging program, with the support of donor and alumna Judith Zachs ’77 MSW, in 2022 because of a growing need for social workers to serve the increasing older adult population. The number of individuals aged 65 and older in the United States is projected to nearly double by 2060, rising from 16% of the population to 23%. The program also addresses a state workforce need, as Connecticut has the 6th highest population of older adults in the nation.
“As the world’s population gets older, the need for Scholars in Aging has grown,” says Zachs, who has devoted her professional social work career to gerontology. “This program is both the beginning and the future to educate students and experienced social workers to meet the needs of our growing senior population.”
Gerontology consultant to the program Kathryn Betts Adams agrees. “The rapidly aging population here in Connecticut, as in many other parts of the United States, provides a dramatic demographic imperative to increase services, housing, livable communities, health care, and mental health care for older adults. In order to do that, we must educate and train the workforce to serve current and future older adults in community, health care, and residential settings, and also advocate for and help shape aging-friendly policies at organizational and government levels.”
‘They Still Want to be Treated the Same’
While taking the course that sparked her passion for working with seniors, Gilbert and fellow students participated in a program called Tea @ 3 Community. Facilitated by the nonprofit group For All Ages, the program pairs students with older adults who they call to chat with for an hour once a week.
“I really liked the senior I was paired with, and I could see myself working with the senior population,” she recalls. “So, for my second year, when I did field education, I really wanted to work with seniors. For me, my personality, their personality, just clicks.”
Gilbert’s current field placement is in the adult and family services division of West Hartford Social Services. For 15 hours a week, she helps seniors with a range of needs, such as applying for Medicare, finding transportation, accessing Meals on Wheels, and getting tech support. In addition to doing occasional home visits, she also runs a Memory Café, a monthly meet-up for older adults with dementia and their caregivers to socialize in a “judgement-free” space, at the Bishop’s Corner Senior Center in West Hartford.
“They don’t want to be treated like babies,” she says of her clients. “They want to be seen as equals, even if they might have some memory loss. They still want to be treated the same.”
The Scholars in Aging program, which has a small cohort of eight students, also brings student scholars together weekly to discuss readings and issues affecting seniors. “It’s really nice to have a small intimate group to talk to, or to hear about other people’s cases,” she says. “It’s really supportive and really informative.” Through her coursework and internship, she’s learned that older adults are more diverse economically and socially than she realized and have challenges that range from evictions to substance misuse.
In addition to her coursework, Gilbert recently took a course sponsored by the town of West Hartford and is now a Certified Dementia Practitioner. The program has convinced her to continue serving older adults when she graduates. “I would like to work with the aging population. That’s my ultimate goal,” she adds.
‘We’re All Going to Age One Day’
Like Gilbert, Jhanelle Bailey ’23 MSW, also did not initially envision serving older adults as a future social worker. Since she had interned at a public school while getting her bachelor’s degree, she wanted to try a different setting, such as a hospital that served various populations, for her required field education experience. Her field advisor suggested Masonicare, a Connecticut-based provider of health care services and senior living. That field placement qualified her for the Scholars in Aging program.
In her coursework, Bailey has gained insight into the needs of older adults as well as the gaps in research about the senior population, particularly elders of color. “There’s a lack of research when it comes to sub-populations of older adults. I’ve also learned about how prominent the issue of isolation is when it comes to older adults and how impactful that was especially with the COVID pandemic,” she says.
At Masonicare, Bailey starts the day conducting group psychotherapy sessions. If a new patient arrives, she performs a biopsychosocial intake, gathering information from the individual, family member, or guardian to determine what services they may need. She also checks in with existing patients one-on-one. Her day typically wraps up with discharge planning, which might involve making calls to long-term care facilities to find space for departing patients.
“When it comes to long-term care, especially for people with dementia, there are not a lot of facilities in Connecticut that have space available for the older adult population,” she notes. “For one patient, sometimes I’m calling up to ten facilities trying to get someone to say, yes, we have beds available.”
On other days, she might sit in on a court hearing in which decisions are made about how to handle a patient’s finances or refusal to take medication. This varied and practical experience differs from her prior internship placement where she mainly shadowed her supervisor. “I’m actually working as a social worker. I am implementing different types of interventions with a patient or just connecting with them through one-on-one sessions,” she says.
Bailey has also benefited from meeting with other students in the program to share their experiences. “We talk about different cases that we might encounter and brainstorm what we could do to either support that student or just help them process whatever they’re going through,” she notes.
The program has confirmed her plans to continue working with older adults after graduation. “My primary goal when searching for jobs is to make sure that I am working with older adults or the aging population,” says Bailey. “I want to make sure that I make some form of contribution because we’re all going to age one day.”
The program — which is open to MSW students who have chosen the Individuals, Groups, and Families concentration — provides a stipend to students upon completion of coursework and field education requirements in each semester during the last year of their program.