Question: Are there any online MSW programs in geriatric social work?

Answer: Yes, there are online MSW programs with specializations or sub-specializations in geriatric social work. These programs typically focus on the mental, emotional, sociocultural, and financial challenges that elderly adults may face, and how social workers can support their elderly clients through these challenges. Students of these programs generally learn how to use a combination of clinical social work methodologies, knowledge of public benefits and support systems, and client advocacy to help elderly individuals lead physically, emotionally, socially, and financially healthy lives.

Prospective online MSW students who are interested in geriatric social work (also known as gerontological social work) can receive graduate training in this area through a number of different avenues. Social workers who work with aging adults must have in-depth knowledge of the challenges these individuals face as a result of their age, including but not limited to age discrimination, declining health, social isolation, depression, financial insecurity, and the increased need for medical and other services which can tax their and their family’s resources. In addition, social workers must know how to support aging and elderly adults through clinical therapeutic practice, help their clients access public and private resources for the elderly, and assist them in navigating important familial and social relationships in their journey to improved mental, emotional, and physical health.

There are several types of online MSW programs that offer training in geriatric or gerontological social work to prepare students for this impactful area of practice. There are online MSW programs with a formal specialization in geriatric social work. An example of such a program is Simmons University’s online MSW program with a Specialized Course of Study in Health and Aging. There are also programs that have a sub-specialization or track in gerontological social work, such as University of Southern California’s (USC) Online MSW program with a Program Track in Older Adults.

There are also programs that, while they do not offer formal specializations or tracks in geriatric social work, nevertheless provide students with advanced courses and/or electives that prepare them for work with elderly clients. For example, online MSW programs with a specialization in Adult Mental Health or a related field may include courses in working with aging populations, the health challenges that the elderly face, and social, familial, and financial hardships this demographic encounters.

Finally, there are online certificate programs for MSW students who are interested in supplementing their graduate program with courses that are dedicated to social work practice with older adults. An example of such a program is the University of Missouri’s Online Graduate Certificate in Gerontological Social Work, which allows MSW students at the University of Missouri as well as students of other MSW programs to earn a certificate in this sub-area of social work.

Curriculum Details for Online MSW Programs in Geriatric Social Work

MSW programs in geriatric social work generally include courses in clinical practice with elderly clients, neurobiology across the lifespan, and working with vulnerable populations in individual and group settings. In addition, these programs tend to give students an idea of the important contexts and systems their elderly clients must navigate, including the medical care and health insurance systems, social security and other government aid, and the sociopolitical forces that impact elderly adults’ ability to maintain employment or afford a good standard of living. Online MSW programs in geriatric social work may also require students to complete one or more of their field practicums in settings that enable them to work with older adults in clinical, human services, and/or social justice environments.

Below is a sample curriculum chart outlining the program requirements for an online MSW program in geriatric social work. Please note that these program requirements are for informational purposes only, and are not meant to exactly represent an existing MSW program.

Curriculum ComponentExample Courses and Field Education Requirements
Core Courses
  • Human Behavior and the Social Environment
  • Foundations of Social Work Practice
  • Social Work Policy and Advocacy
  • Social Work Research
  • Clinical Assessment and Diagnosis
Concentration Courses
  • Mental Health and Aging
  • Integrated Health Care for the Aging and Elderly
  • The Biology of Aging
  • Psychosocial Function and the Elderly
  • Advanced Clinical Practice with Older and Aging Adults
  • Diversity of Experiences Amongst the Aging and Elderly
  • Legal and Ethical Aspects of Mental Health for the Elderly
  • Policy Advocacy for the Elderly
Elective Courses
  • Substance Abuse and Behavioral Addictions
  • Complex Social Work Cases
Field Education Requirements
  • Foundational Field Practicum and Integrative Field Seminar
  • Advanced Field Practicum and Integrative Field Seminar

Courses for online MSW programs in geriatric social work may include but are not limited to:

  • Integrated Health Care for the Aging and Elderly: How social workers can support elderly patients in integrated care contexts that include primary and preventative health care, mental and behavioral health care interventions, inpatient and acute care considerations, and community support and resources. Students in this course learn how to coordinate care in collaboration with different practitioners who comprise a patient’s health care team.
  • Advanced Clinical Practice with Older and Aging Adults: An in-depth course that covers advanced clinical social work modalities and their use in working with elderly clients suffering from mental, emotional, physical, and familial/social challenges. Students learn how to conduct clinical assessment and diagnosis of complex conditions, develop and oversee ongoing client treatment plans, and manage client transitions from different levels of behavioral health care.
  • Mental Health and Aging: Students examine and discuss the major mental, emotional, and psychosocial challenges that the elderly face at different stages in the aging process. They also learn about the normal biological process of aging and how it impacts an individual’s emotions and cognition.
  • Diversity of Experiences Amongst the Aging and Elderly: The importance of considering generational/age-based, ethnic, cultural gender, and sexual diversity when working with clients and their families who are encountering the ramifications of aging. The role that diversity plays in accurate clinical assessments and the development of empathetic and effective client interventions. Students also discuss the difference in the aging experience between different demographic groups, including men vs. women and the racially and socioeconomically marginalized groups vs. affluent communities and demographics that constitute the social majority.
  • The Biology and Sociology of Aging: The physical changes that the human body undergoes throughout the process of aging, and the health problems that are common amongst the elderly. How the biology of aging intersects with the familial and social changes that people experience as they age, and how the social worker can take all of these facets of the aging process into account when assessing and formulating interventions for elderly clients.
  • Policy Advocacy for the Elderly: An overview of the government systems and policies that impact the well-being of elderly individuals in the United States. Medicare, Social Security, and laws protecting the elderly are discussed, as are laws and regulations that directly or indirectly disadvantage this demographic. The role of the social worker in advocating for new policies and policy revisions that support the health, independence, and quality of life of aging adult populations.

Field Education for Online MSW Programs in Geriatric Social Work

Online MSW programs in geriatric or gerontological social work typically require students to complete one or both of their field practicums in a setting that gives them relevant experience in providing clinical therapy, direct social services, and care coordination to the elderly. Such settings may include but are not limited to hospitals, residential treatment centers, community health centers, retirement communities, palliative care and hospice care settings, outpatient behavioral health care centers, and Veteran Affairs medical centers. Due to the fact that individuals face increasing physical health challenges as they age, MSW students may find that geriatric social work settings necessitate, not only mental and behavioral care, but also medical and residential care coordination. While this means that MSW students who specialize in geriatric social work may have to take on complex and multifaceted responsibilities during their practicums, the integrated and interdisciplinary nature of geriatric care may also broaden the number of possible practicum sites from which students can choose.

Online MSW programs vary in terms of how they manage students’ field practicum placements. Some programs actively match students with suitable practicum sites and supervisors, making sure to align students’ placements with their stated academic interests, professional goals, and region of residence. Other programs require students to find their own practicum placements by researching prospective social work settings, reaching out to potential supervisors, and interviewing at these sites before submitting their practicum placement selection to their program for approval. Regardless of how their program handles the practicum placement process, online MSW students in geriatric social work should connect with their program’s field education director and staff to proactively discuss their learning objectives and to research potential practicum sites well in advance of the term in which they are due to start their field education.

Even for students of programs that match them with practicum sites and supervisors, it is generally advantageous for them to be engaged in and vocal about their own field placement placements. For more information on field education for online MSW programs, including the essential steps to success in completing one’s field practicums, please refer to our comprehensive Guide to Field Education.