My Career Path to Gerontological Social Work: A Student's Perspective

By Kelsey Van Dyke

I came to social work with an open mind and a passion for helping others. I was not sure what field of social work would be a good fit for me. While I initially had an interest in working with families and children, I learned about the aging specialization at University of Maryland’s School of Social Work as I prepared my graduate school application. I was not sure what the specialization might entail, but I knew that working with older adults would be inevitable as the proportion of older adults in the population rapidly increases.

Shortly after my acceptance to graduate school, I began working at the CSWE Gero-Ed Center as a part-time program assistant. There I learned about challenges facing many older adults’—for example, health, substance abuse, poverty—as well as the variety of work settings available in the aging field. I also learned how the Gero-Ed Center is working to address the shortage of gero social workers through infusing aging into required curricula. Based on my experiences, I have tried to explain to classmates and friends that gero social work is a diverse field and that social workers will likely come in contact with older adults in all field of practice. While my classmates thought a nursing home was unavoidable for a social worker specializing in aging, I knew there could be so much more.

Thanks to a helpful field liaison, I was introduced to Iona Senior Services, a nonprofit organization and a grantee of the area agency on aging that provides services to adults age 60 and older in Washington, DC. As a student intern, I provide case management, helping connect older adults with the services and resources that help them to stay in their homes. I conduct clinical assessments of clients during home visits, create care plans, provide supportive counseling, and help cofacilitate a support group for family caregivers. I have enjoyed the opportunity to learn from experienced professionals and other student interns of varying ages and career levels working together on an interdisciplinary team. I have had opportunities to work with clients who are low-income and have varying physical and mental health needs. Learning about the resources and benefits available to my clients has been a challenge. With programs and policies changing rapidly, it is a struggle to educate clients and myself. Consultations with other professionals within Iona, other agencies, and my field instructor have been valuable and absolutely necessary in my journey to become a competent social work professional.

In the future, I would like to continue my work with older adults at the clinical level, primarily in community-based practice. Iona has proven to be a great arena for gaining experiences that help prepare me for such a career. My long-term professional goal is to work at the program level developing initiatives to make social, mental health, and other health services more accessible to older adults. I believe developing and coordinating programs to help the increasingly large aging population, as well as their families and caregivers, will continue to be a vital role for social work professionals in the future.

Kelsey Van Dyke is a second-year MSW student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. She is completing her advanced field placement at Iona Senior Services in the Consultation, Care Management, and Counseling department.