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Social Work tackles challenges of America’s aging population

Social worker with an elderly woman

The number of people age 65 or older is expected to double by the year 2050. The Institute of Innovative Aging Policy and Practice aims to address the challenges faced by America's fastest-growing demographic.

By CHARLES ANZALONE

Published April 10, 2014

Louanne Bakk
“Given the increase in the older adult population, it’s critical social workers are knowledgeable and have an understanding of these people’s needs and the issues surrounding their ability to remain independent within the community.”
Louanne Bakk, assistant professor
School of Social Work

By the year 2050, the number of people age 65 or older will more than double.  Within that exploding demographic, the “oldest-old” — or those people age 85 or older — will become the fastest-growing segment of that aging population, increasing by almost 70 percent over the next 20 years.

That makes these “oldest-old” the fastest-growing demographic of any in the United States. The people in this growing population face a challenge: They can take the opportunity to remain healthy, active and independent, or they can incur serious problems that could potentially be avoided or minimized if they had access to the resources and supportive services needed.

This is where the School of Social Work comes in. The school’s new Institute of Innovative Aging Policy and Practice, or IIAPP, launched by Assistant Professor Louanne Bakk, aims to address those problems, devoting its formidable research capabilities to finding solutions.

“A primary aim of IIAPP is to respond to the needs of this growing population and expand knowledge for developing and modifying effective interventions, programs and policies that address the health, economic and social concerns of older adults,” says Bakk, who served as director of an Area Agency on Aging in Michigan for more than nine years prior to joining the UB faculty last year.

“The aging population is increasing at an unprecedented rate.”

Bakk’s research interests are heavily influenced by her practice experience, where she observed the impact of public policy initiatives designed to assist older individuals residing within the community.  For example, when the Medicare prescription drug benefit, or Medicare Part D, was adopted, her agency assisted more than 20,000 older adults with the enrollment process. 

Her experiences found that while Medicare Part D was a great help to many older persons, those who were more vulnerable — in particular older women and persons from racial and ethnic minority groups — would continue to struggle with drug costs because of the structure of the benefit.

“It’s important to understand whether this policy initiative has addressed disparities, particularly in light of efforts by the Department of Health and Human Services to reduce disparities in health and health care services,” Bakk says. “Here at UB, we’re particularly interested in addressing the needs of the most vulnerable and oppressed. The number of people age 65 or older will increase from just over 40 million to 88.5 million between 2010 and 2050.” 

Additionally, the population will become more diverse, with racial and ethnic minority groups representing a larger proportion of the population.

“It’s important to remember that despite advances within the policy arena, inequalities continue to exist — particularly in relation to race, ethnicity and gender,” says Bakk. “As the population grows and becomes more diverse, it is critical that we monitor differential access to programs and services designed to help older adults maintain their health, well-being and independence.”

The IIAPP will be a part of the School of Social Work’s Buffalo Center for Social Research, whose mission is to work toward the discovery and advancement of social work knowledge through community partnerships and interdisciplinary research. 

“I see the aims of the IIAPP as directly aligning with the Center for Social Research’s mission in that we’re trying to advance social work knowledge regarding the needs of the aging,” Bakk says. “There’s an emphasis on both community and interdisciplinary research.

“Of particular interest is research on the impact of policies, programs and services designed to assist older persons and their caregivers, with an emphasis on racial, ethnic and gender disparities.”

The IIAPP’s planned activities include research and interdisciplinary community partnerships emphasizing the need to help the elderly obtain access to needed services and support, and remain independent within the community. 

The IIAPP also will serve as an educational resource for students, agencies and community organizations interested in enhancing and advancing policies, programs and services for older adults. Bakk says the center plans to offer information on aging-related topics through trainings and continuing education sessions, and disseminate research findings at forums and seminars.

One of the IIAPP’s current research projects examines co-location, or the placement of multiple aging service providers in one facility through the Town Square for Aging (TSA) initiative.  TSA is an innovative university-community partnership specifically designed to address the needs of frail elders by allowing them to access support services in a single community location. 

Shared physical space, communication, relationships and shared knowledge of co-located service providers will lead to better care, particularly for frail elders, according to Bakk. If many services are in one location, frail elders — many of whom are vulnerable to hospitalization and loss of independence — can receive the help they are entitled to more easily.

“Given the increase in the older adult population, it’s critical social workers are knowledgeable and have an understanding of these people’s needs and the issues surrounding their ability to remain independent within the community,” says Bakk. “It’s also important social workers understand programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security because these programs can have a direct impact on an older adults’ health and financial well-being.”

Bakk’s work underscores the responsibility of social work students to be aware of the problems of all kinds of people.

“Sometimes, social work students aren’t interested in working with older adults,” she says. “However, the likelihood of their clients being touched by the needs of older persons is high. For example, while a student may be more interested in working with children, there is a strong chance that the family they’re serving contains older adults — especially considering the growth of the population over the next several decades.”