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History of the Development of Gerontological Social Work Competencies

NativeCowboy23.jpgTwo sets of gerontological social work competencies have guided curricular change in the classroom and field:

  1. The CSWE Gero-Ed Center Competency Goals, ensuring that all social workers attain a beginning skill level for practice with older adults and their families, and
  2. The Hartford Partnership Program in Aging Education (HPPAE) Geriatric Social Work Competency Scale, for the advanced practice level.

These consensus-based geriatric/gero competencies have been an integral part of the educational achievements of the Geriatric Social Work Initiative (GSWI) (Damron-Rodriguez, 2006). The GSWI, supported by the John A. Hartford Foundation, consists of four programs (Gero-Ed Center, HPPAEHartford Faculty Scholars, and Hartford Doctoral Fellows) that collaborate with social work education programs nationwide to prepare gero-competent social workers and improve the care and well-being of older adults and their families.

This Web page summarizes the development of the GSWI's competency-based approach to gerontological social work education since 1998:

SAGE-SW Competencies
HPPAE Competency Scale Development
Gero-Ed Center Gero Competencies for Generalist Practice
Aligning Gero Competencies with the 2008 EPAS

SAGE-SW Competencies

The CSWE SAGE-SW Project, funded by the Hartford Foundation from 1998-2001, developed competencies from a process of literature review and expert opinion (Rosen, Zlotnik, Curl, & Green, 2000). A comprehensive review of the social work gerontological literature produced a pool of 128 possible professional competencies. In summer 1999, copies of the 128 items were mailed to seven social work gerontology expert consultants in academia, research, and practice. These expert panelists were asked to review the items and suggest deletions, additions, and modifications of the items. A pretest was then sent to social workers.

Based on the panelists' recommendations and the pretest, 65 items across 3 major professional domains were identified:

  1. Knowledge about older people and their families (17 items)
  2. Professional skill (32 items)
  3. Professional practice (16 items)

These items were reviewed for redundancy, clarity, and specificity to gerontological practice. They were then pretested and reviewed by a convenience sample of 20 social workers in December 1999. The final questionnaire was circulated to 2,400 social work practitioners, educators, and researchers; of these, 945, or 51%, were returned.

Respondents were directed to classify each competency item on a 3-point scale. If respondents thought a competency was needed by all BSW and MSW social workers (level 1), they were instructed to indicate ALL. If they believed a competency was required only by MSW social workers, they were to indicate MSW ONLY (level 2). Finally, if respondents thought only geriatric specialists needed a particular competency, they were instructed to circle SPECIALIST (level 3).

In sum, the SAGE-SW Project, drawing upon a large national sample of educators, practitioners, and researchers, produced a comprehensive list of knowledge, values, and skills (competencies) that have provided a framework for all subsequent competency review and revision. This survey process is described in detail in the CSWE SAGE-SW National Competencies Survey and Report.

HPPAE Competency Scale Development

Geriatric Social Work Competency Scale

The New York Academy of Medicine's Hartford Partnership Program in Aging Education (HPPAE, formerly Practicum Partnership Program, or PPP) developed the Geriatric Social Work Competency Scale in order to measure outcomes of aging-enhanced social work field education. The initial work began with the Geriatric Social Work Education Consortium (GSWEC, a PPP demonstration site). Using the SAGE-SW competencies (Rosen et al., 2000), a thorough literature review of geriatric social work education (Scharlach, Damron-Rodriguez, Robinson, & Feldman, 2000), plus a focus group process of providers and older persons, GSWEC identified a set of competencies (Naito-Chan, Damron-Rodriguez, & Simmons, 2004). These competencies were then reviewed, matched, and finally synthesized with competencies developed by five other PPP sites. All the competencies were converted into skills statements, which were then reviewed for clarity and validity by members of the HPPAE Evaluation Committee.

The resulting Geriatric Social Work Competency Scale I was a 58-item instrument divided into five domains, some with subsections:

  1. Values and Ethics
  2. Assessment (Individual and Family; Aging Services, Programs, and Policies)
  3. Practice and Intervention (Theory and Knowledge in Practice; Individual and Family; Aging Services, Programs, and Policies)
  4. Interdisciplinary Collaboration
  5. Evaluation and Research

The instrument was designed as a pre-posttest to measure the effect of HPPAE’s innovative field education approach on the skills of the 226 participating graduate social work students specializing in aging. Found to be effective in measuring field education outcome, this instrument was also used for educational planning after the pretest (Damron-Rodriguez, Lawrance, Barnett, & Simmons, 2007).

Geriatric Social Work Competency Scale II

In the next phase of competency development, the Geriatric Social Work Competency Scale II (GSW Scale II) was developed to eliminate double-barreled, ambiguous, and redundant items, and to lessen the time for administration. The revised scale contained 40 items with both micro and macro content now grouped into four domains:

  1. Values, Ethics, and Theoretical Perspectives
  2. Assessment
  3. Intervention
  4. Aging Services, Programs, and Policies

The revised scale measured the respondents’ perceptions of their skill levels (e.g., self-efficacy) in aging practice using a 0-4 scale: from 0=not skilled at all, to 4=expert skill. HPPAE’s 40 gero social work competencies have been used in the classroom as learning objectives and measured in field education as learning outcomes (Damron-Rodriguez, 2006; Damron-Rodriguez, Volland, Wright, & Hooyman, 2009). The instrument has considerable face validity and has been useful in assessing a range of skill levels along the continuum of BSW, MSW, and post-MSW education (Damron-Rodriguez, 2006; Nakao, Damron-Rodriguez, Lawrance, Volland, & Bachrach, 2007).

GSW Scale II Adaptations and Uses

To further evaluate HPPAE student competency outcomes and address problems inherent in self-rating scales, a Field Instructor Version of the GSW Scale II was developed. An additional 10 leadership competencies for advanced practice were developed in 2009 by an HPPAE national workgroup of educators and practitioners to increase the system-level emphasis of geriatric practice (Social Work Leadership Institute [SWLI], 2009). This was in response to feedback from faculty and student participants about the need for more macro research, community practice, and policy competencies. In addition, further delineation of competencies or practice behaviors related to leadership capability in the field of aging was deemed necessary. These 10 competencies are organized under a fifth domain of the GSW Competency Scale II with Life-long Leadership Skills (total of 50 competencies). 

Gero-Ed Center Gero Competencies for Generalist Practice

The CSWE GeroRich Project (2001-04), in collaboration with HPPAE/PPP, reviewed the 40 GSW Scale II competencies and the 65 SAGE-SW generalist competencies to ensure a fundamentally similar approach used by GeroRich, and then by the Gero-Ed Center’s Cycles 1 and 2 Curriculum Development Institute Programs. It was similar in terms of the 10 competencies for each for the four domains. It differs, however, since Gero-Ed Center competencies are written in terms of student learning outcomes for generalist classroom curricula. The resulting list of Gero-Ed Center Competency Goals is intended to guide programmatic curriculum development and infusion of aging into BSW and 1st year MSW required generalist coursework. However, many social work programs participating in Gero-Ed Center initiatives have also used the GSW Scale II.

Aligning Gero Competencies with the 2008 EPAS

In 2008-09, the Gero-Ed Center and HPPAE partnered through a national Task Force for Advanced Gero Practice to create knowledge and practice behaviors for the generalist and advanced levels of practice and to ensure consistency of competencies used by all GSWI programs. Through this process, it was clarified that Gero-Ed Center Competency Goals are useful for helping all social workers attain a beginning skill level for practice with older adults and their families, while HPPAE applies the gerontological competencies to produce advanced-level practitioners who are in gerontology/geriatric specializations or concentrations. In reviewing the two sets of gero competencies and linking them to selected EPAS practice behaviors, the Gero-Ed Center and HPPAE agreed that all GSWI projects should utilize the GSW Competency Scale II With Life-Long Leadership Skills.

For further details about the process of gero competency development, see Damron-Rodriguez et al. (2009).

For additional information about the Task Force for Advanced Gero Practice work to align the Gero-Ed Center competencies with the GSW Scale II and with select 2008 EPAS practice behaviors, see the Advanced Gero Social Work Practice Guide


Damron-Rodriguez, J. (2006). Moving ahead: Developing geriatric social work competencies. In B. Berkman (Ed.),Handbook of social work in health and aging (pp. 1051–1068). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Damron-Rodriguez, J. (2007). Social work practice in aging: A competency-based approach for the 21st century. In R. Greene, H. Cohen, C. Galambos, & N. Kropf (Eds.), Foundation of social work practice in the aging field: A competency-based approach (pp. 1–16). Washington, DC: NASW Press.

Damron-Rodriguez, J., Lawrance, F. P., Barnett, D., & Simmons, J. (2007). Developing geriatric social work competencies for field education. Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 48, 139–160.

Damron-Rodriguez, J. A., Volland, P., Wright, M. E., and Hooyman, N. R. (2009) Competency-based education: Implications of the Hartford Geriatric Social Work approach. In N. R. Hooyman (Ed). Transforming Social Work Education (pp. 21-50). Alexandria, VA: CSWE Press.

Naito-Chan, E., Damron-Rodriguez, J., & Simmons, W. J. (2004). Identifying competencies for geriatric social work practice. Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 43(4), 59–78.

Nakao, K. C., Damron-Rodriguez, J. A., Lawrance, F. P., Volland, P. & Bachrach, P. S. (2007, November).Examination of the psychometric properties of the Knowledge of Aging for Social Work Quiz (KASW). Paper presented at the 60th annual meeting of the Gerontology Society of America, San Francisco.

Rosen, A., Zlotnik, J., Curl, A., & Green, R. (2000). The CSWE/SAGE-SW National Aging Competencies Survey Report. Council on Social Work Education. Alexandria, VA: CSWE Gero-Ed Center.

Scharlach, A., Damron-Rodriguez, J. A., Robinson, B., & Feldman, R. (2000). Educating social workers for an aging society: A vision for the twenty-first century. Journal of Social Work Education, 36, 521-538.