Aging Today September–October 2019


Growing GRACE: one woman’s quest to expand the eldercare workforce B y now, Aging Today readers are familiar with the statistics point- ing to a dearth of social workers in

at least one placement with an organiza- tion that works with older adults). GRACE complements this field expe- rience with educational enrichment events, such as a speakers series (which

the field of aging. But Sarah Swords is working diligently to remedy the problem. Swords, a clinical associate professor and assistant dean for Master’s Programs at the University of Texas at Austin (UT- Austin), Steve Hicks School of Social Work, coordinates the Gerontology Resources and the Aging Community in Education (GRACE) field education pro- gram, which aims to increase the number of professional social workers who work with older adults. The Genesis and Growth of GRACE GRACE has been in place at UT-Austin since 2009, but Swords arrived there in 2010. When she began her work, GRACE had six students, and was running on a $10,000 grant from a small family founda- tion. The program now has 24 to 25 stu- dents annually, and a funding partnership with Austin-based St. David’s Foundation for more than $200,000. “From 2011 to 2019, we have graduated 165 students,” said Swords. Twenty-two of these graduates have completed two GRACE placements, choosing to do the two required field work placements in community agencies serving older adults (GRACE students are required to perform

The Aging in America Conference ‘is a carrot’ for Swords’ students.

Swords plans) and screenings of docu- mentaries like “Care,” which is about the crisis in long-term-care services. Other educational events include workshops; a recent offering was a daylong session fo- cusing on LGBT elders, and planned for Fall is a session on hoarding disorders. Students must attend at least five sched- uled GRACE educational events during their graduate studies. Swords works to evolve GRACE program- ming in response to the growing aging population and the increasing demand for social workers to work with older adults. She didn’t want graduates to “be out there untethered,” and so decided a good strat- egy to encourage more social workers to work in aging services would be to have UT-Austin social work masters graduates GRACE Fosters Post-Graduate Connections

GRACE students gather onstage at the 2019 Aging in America Conference; Sarah Swords is in the center, in blue.

become GRACE field instructors and stu- dents’ mentors. In 2015, through additional grant funding from St. David’s, Swords began to bring 10 GRACE students and one field in- structor to ASA’s Aging in America Con- ference for what she calls a “major educa-

Office of Field Education to refresh field placement opportunities for her students, including increasing their partnership with UT-Austin’s newmedical school. “One big focus is learning through sim- ulation in healthcare,” she says, and so she is planning a GRACE educational event that would feature simulations and an ad- ditional event that would explore the use of simulations as applied to care-planning and palliative care. Other budding areas for social work- ers who concentrate on the field of aging is in mental health, Swords says, espe- cially with respect to substance abuse disorders. Another key area focuses on new ways to deliver care, through in- home counseling for people on Medicare Another budding area for social workers who concentrate on the field of aging is mental health. or via engagement with organizations al- ready working in the home, such as Meals on Wheels America and Adult Protective Services. Swords still battles the stigma that ex- ists aroundworking with elders. Typically, only 5 percent of the social work students who enter the masters program want to work with older adults. But in an incoming group, which will begin the masters pro- gram in Fall 2019, 17 percent were interest- ed in working with older adults—a statistic Swords calls “awesome.” What many incoming students don’t realize, Swords says, is that social work within the clinical healthcare and medi- cal arenas will definitely mean working with older adults. And, as Swords is ever an advocate for GRACE and for elders, she asks those students who would, say, want only to work with children to be open to something new. “Even students working with children need to know how to work with older adults, since grandparents are an important part of a child’s world.” n Editor’s Note: ASA lauds Sarah Swords for her ongoing commitment and dedication to championing a future eldercare workforce.

This year, 17 percent of the incoming students were interested in working with older adults.

tion event”—a field trip she has repeated for the last five years. “It’s a carrot for them,” she said, and “a big benefit for field instructors, who get a week of profession- al development, [while] modeling lifelong learning to the students.” She has brought 50 students total to the Conference, and five field instruc- tors. “It’s an enormous cementing of their connection to older adults at the Conference, where they can begin to see what they could do in practice with older adults.” At the 2019 Aging in America Confer- ence, Swords says upon entering the first General Session, one of her students was “feeling really down” after attendingmul- tiple sessions that brought into focus all the barriers older adults face. Once the student heard AARP’s Lisa Marsh Ryer- son’s call to arms, she told Swords that was “exactly what she needed.” She felt re-focused, and realized “this is why we do what we do.” Swords encouraged the woman to con- nect with Ryerson at ASA’s Leadership Reception, which she did, and soonMarsh Ryersonwas surrounded by more GRACE students eager to connect and learn. “[The Aging in America Conference] is a major educational piece for them,” says Swords. “They remember it forever!” NewOpportunities, NewWork, New Interest As the GRACE program grows and the so- cial work field becomes more complex, Swords continues to work closely with the

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