Two years before the coronavirus pandemic made issues in long-term care impossible to ignore, three MacEwan University professors were already asking questions about how social workers could help better serve the growing older adult population in the province.
“COVID ripped off the band-aid, in a manner of speaking, and shone a spotlight on society’s most vulnerable people, older adults being among them,” says Kathaleen Quinn, assistant professor of social work. “We suddenly started to hear about troubles in long-term care facilities, but those challenges are not new – we just didn’t talk about them until they became unbearable for the older adults in these facilities and their families.”
Many of those challenges – dealing with loneliness and isolation, lacking a sense of purpose and difficulty accessing services – are things Quinn and her colleagues, Dr. Anna Azulai and the study’s principal investigator Dr. Hongmei Tong, agree that gerontological social workers can play a significant role in addressing.
“Long-term care facilities have been talking about the need for extra staff and training for a long time,” says Azulai. “We know that staffing is so important, and that social workers trained to work with older adults can be a critical part of the interdisciplinary teams in these facilities.”
Earlier this fall, the three social work professors presented the findings of a large-group, action-focused dialogue they hosted at the end of 2018 with 49 social workers from across Alberta at the 10th Aging and Social Change Interdisciplinary Conference hosted by the University of British Columbia.
Reevaluating society’s stance on aging
At a macro level, Tong says, their findings show that gerontological social workers must continue advocating for accessible services – housing, food, transportation, mental health services – and changes to policy, along with a shift in the way we view older generations.
“The need to feel a sense of purpose, to feel connected and to feel dignity do not stop when a person turns 65, 75 or 85,” says Tong. But the way we speak about older adults, she explains, often marginalizes them, keeps us from seeing them as valuable contributors to society and, therefore, makes it easier to perceive older adults as being less worthy of attention.
That’s troubling, considering the number of older adults in the province is set to triple by 2040, when one in five Albertans are projected to be over the age of 65.
Effectively addressing the needs of the increasing number of people likely to need care as they age, says Azulai, requires the type of individualized plans gerontological social workers are trained to provide. But unlike other jurisdictions in the world, including parts of the United States, Alberta does not legally require long-term care facilities to employ social workers.
A shortage of specialists
“Some facilities in Alberta have social workers and some don’t,” explains Azulai. That creates a gap in services which can cascade into a variety of issues.
When social workers are part of interdisciplinary teams in long-term care facilities, explains Azulai, they help older adults and their families navigate resources and systems. They focus on the individual needs that extend beyond the physical – the financial, social, legal, cultural, psychological and spiritual needs every human being has.
“Social workers play a coordinating role that connects caregivers, families and clients in ways that make sure the whole person is taken care of,” says Azulai.
But when social workers are missing, nurses – who already have a different set of responsibilities – are left to take up the task. “It’s just not feasible for a single health-care professional to cater to the variety of needs people have,” says Azulai.
Providing interconnected, integrated services that take care of the needs of older adults has far-reaching implications.
“When we enhance the lives of an aging person, we also enhance the lives of their families and the people who work with them,” says Quinn.
Tong, Azulai and Quinn plan to continue their work, publishing a paper based on this study and pursuing additional funding to expand their focus beyond Alberta to look at the impact of COVID-19 on older adults in long-term care settings across the country.
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