As a medical social worker, I work with older adults from varied backgrounds and life circumstances. Some are fortunate enough to have help from family, and these family members share the desire to support their elders’ wishes for preserved independence and dignity through ever-changing health and personal needs.

Today there are more family caregivers for older adults than ever before. This group will continue to grow as the baby boomer generation ages and their need for support increases. The “sandwich generation” refers to individuals who are raising children while also providing support to their aging parents. Another growing phenomenon, the “club sandwich” generation more specifically describes individuals who are caring for their aging parents while caring for their grandchildren as well.

In some ways, this “sandwiching” of care is a return to the multigenerational family structures of previous eras, but with added modern complexities. These challenges include greater geographic distances between family members, increased financial burdens on seniors and caregivers, and the harried pace of today’s society. In many cases, the sandwich generation can hold their families together, but it is extremely difficult to meet everyone’s needs simultaneously. Social workers are an important ingredient in helping caregiving families navigate these ever-growing demands.

What Do Social Workers Do?

Medical social workers are a crucial part of any health care team. These professionals collaborate with patients, their family and other members of their interdisciplinary team (physicians, nurses, therapists, etc.) to promote physical and mental health and functionality following an illness, hospitalization or other medical event. Healthcare social workers specialize in counseling, case management, educating patients and their loved ones about medical issues and treatment options, and connecting and referring patients to community resources.

The following are some of the pressing age-related questions my colleagues and I have helped families answer:

  • What will happen to my older loved one if their needs become too great for me to manage?
  • Does my loved one qualify for community support programs?
  • My family lives out of state and cannot continue to travel at a moment’s notice when I have a medical crisis. What options do we have?
  • How can I help my aging loved ones prepare for the possibility of illness, hospitalization and death? I don’t know how to have these conversations, but I know they are important.
  • I am being spread too thin between the family members for whom I provide regular support. How can I cope better with the stress of being a caregiver?

We partner with caregivers and older adults, helping to address these and many other concerns. Social workers are uniquely skilled at identifying both a senior client’s needs and ensuring the well-being of their entire support system. This includes looking after the caregiver’s needs to prevent burnout. Here is how social workers help address these concerns:

  • We ask questions to gain a holistic understanding of our older adult clients. We want to find out who they are at their core and what they value most. We also determine what their experiences are with aging and evaluate their needs for support.
  • We understand the caregiver’s unique point of view, which includes balancing concerns for a loved one’s well-being with their own priorities, commitments and personal goals.
  • We help develop care plans that meet everyone’s needs and wishes, which might include counseling on strategies for stress management, facilitating conversations about end-of-life care and concerns, suggesting financial assistance programs, and providing referrals to community supports and resources.

Working with a Social Worker

I have provided this support to older adults and their caregivers in hospitals, outpatient medical clinics and public housing settings, where it is often standard practice for individuals to work with a social worker. Social workers can also be found in primary care practices, rehabilitation and long-term care facilities, and community agencies that serve seniors like Area Agencies on Aging. In many of these settings, an individual must be referred to a social worker or specifically request a meeting with one.

When approaching questions and challenges regarding aging, I encourage older adults and their families to think of themselves as their own best advocates. If you have not yet been referred to a social worker, I urge you to speak up and ask for one. This is a critical first step toward resolving any concerns you may have about caregiving and navigating elder care.

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A helpful way to approach working with a social worker is to view it as a collaborative partnership. The older adult and family are the experts on their own lives, challenges and preferences, while the social worker has the expertise to address needs associated with age-related concerns, stress and improvement in quality of life. While I know it can be difficult, open and honest communication will enable a social worker to facilitate better outcomes for everyone involved.

With the complexities of modern life come the benefits of specialized professionals and resources to manage the challenges we encounter. Social workers are nonjudgmental listeners, problem-solvers and an essential ingredient in the sandwich that is family caregiving.