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Home    >    Empowering Social Workers for Practice with Vulnerable Older Adults
Empowering Social Workers for Practice with Vulnerable Older Adults
Barbara Soniat and Monica Melady Micklos
ISBN: 978-0-87101-395-8. 2010. Item# 3958. 144 pages.

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Social workers are frequently the first responders in situations that require assessment of an older person’s capacity for independent decision making and self-care, yet there is limited professional literature to inform and guide social work practice in the area of assessing capacity and working with vulnerable and at-risk older adults. Empowering Social Workers for Practice with Vulnerable Older Adults by Barbara Soniat and Monica Melady Micklos teaches the generalist social worker how to work with vulnerable older adults and presents a useful model to guide social workers in assessing capacity and making intervention decisions. Soniat and Micklos write:

At times, social workers face challenging situations when the vulnerable older adult they are prepared to assist does not want help and refuses offered intervention and services. This can leave a social worker feeling frustrated, professionally inadequate and with great concern for the well-being of the older adult. Social workers often experience internal and external pressure to "do something" from their own value system, the referral source, or others in the older adults’ network. Feeling frustration that one will have to "wait for the next crisis" before intervening is common.

Empowering Social Workers for Practice with Vulnerable Older Adults deals with an emerging practice in geriatric social work – the assessment of capacity – and promotes the "person-in-environment" perspective, which is well suited to this area of practice. In addition to chapters on hoarding, working with elders with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias who live alone, the book’s core features include:

  • Introduction to geriatric social work

  • Discussion of values and ethical dilemmas

  • Success factors in relationship building

  • Assessment using the capacity-risk model

Empowering Social Workers for Practice with Vulnerable Older Adults makes an excellent and timely graduate text, not only for specialized courses in geriatrics and gerontology, but also in core coursework to infuse content related to older adults into the social work curricula. In addition, the book will be a tremendous resource for practitioners in continuing education and certificate programs, educational initiatives for establishing core competencies in geriatric social work, and compliance training for state Adult Protective Service workers. The book is also relevant for other professionals outside of the social work profession who work with older adults, such as physicians, psychiatrists, nurses, and attorneys.
About the Authors

Part One

Chapter 1: Vulnerable Older Adults: A Population Demanding Attention

Chapter 2: Geriatric Social Work as a Vital Field

Chapter 3: Theoretical Perspectives

Chapter 4: Value Issues and Ethical Dilemmas

Part Two

Chapter 5: Importance of the Client – Social Worker Relationship

Chapter 6: Assessing Capacity

Chapter 7: Assessing Risk

Chapter 8: Using the Capacity-Risk Model to Guide Assessment and Intervention Decisions

Part Three

Chapter 9: Working with Older People who Hoard

Chapter 10: Live Alones: Social Work Interventions with People with Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias Who Live Alone

Social workers are frequently the first responders in situations that require assessment of an older person’s ability for independent decision making and self-care. Social workers in a variety of practice settings have to make decisions about when to refer cases for adult protective services (APS), crisis mental health interventions, or legal services; these decisions often involve assessing functional capacity and risks. Social workers in senior centers and senior volunteer programs are sometimes called on to discharge older persons when they experience diminished capacity to continue to participate in senior programs or exhibit inappropriate, inconsistent, or unsafe behaviors because of changes in functional capacity. Social workers also work in settings that provide opportunities for early identification of older persons who may be developing problems managing their care in the community. There is limited professional literature to inform and guide social work practice in the area of assessing capacity and working with vulnerable and at-risk older adults. Other disciplines also recognize the need for professional guidance in working with those persons who have diminished capacity. In 2005, the American Bar Association (ABA), in partnership with the American Psychological Association (APA), published Assessment of Older Adults with Diminished Capacity: A Handbook for Lawyers. This extremely timely document was the culmination of 10 years of collaboration between the ABA and APA. Subsequent products that were derived from the collaboration include a handbook for judges on determining capacity (ABA, APA, & National College of Probate Judges, 2006) and a handbook for psychologists on assessing capacity (ABA & APA, 2008).

This text provides guidance for social workers who are assessing capacity and making intervention decisions involving older adults with diminished capacity. Part One provides background information about social work practice with vulnerable older adults. Chapter 1 presents the demographic challenges that make it imperative that geriatric social workers are empowered with knowledge and skilled for community-based practice with the elderly. We describe the population of vulnerable older adults who are likely to require ethically guided, culturally sensitive assessment of their capacity to exercise their rights to self-determination. We also summarize concepts related to assessing capacity used in the medical, psychiatric, and legal arenas and recognize the reality that evaluating capacity (or "competence") goes beyond the legal arena. Chapter 2 discusses geriatric social work with a particular emphasis on community-based practice. This chapter emphasizes the need to empower geriatric social workers to recognize their own expertise and the important role they play with the growing population of vulnerable older adults. We also identify the assessment of capacity as an emerging area of practice within the field of social work and promote the social work "person-in-environment" perspective as well suited to offer a valuable contribution toward improving the quality of capacity assessments. Chapter 3 discusses the value issues and ethical dilemmas that surface in work with this population. Chapter 4 covers the theoretical basis for the capacity-risk model.

Part Two, chapters 5 through 8, discusses use of the capacity-risk model for assessing vulnerable older adults. This includes a chapter on the importance of establishing a therapeutic alliance with the older adult, chapters applying the biopsychosocial framework to the assessment of capacity and risk, and a chapter on assessing the ability of the individual to function in his or her environment using the capacity-risk model. Part Two ends with illustrations of how social workers can use the capacity-risk model to guide decisions about interventions with vulnerable older adults.

Part Three uses cases to demonstrate the capacity-risk model in working with specific populations of vulnerable older adults, such as older adults with compulsive hoarding behaviors, and those who neglect their self-care needs.

Social workers who practice in geriatric, mental health, and APS settings play critical roles in assessing functional capacity and risks encountered by vulnerable older adults living in homes and communities. This population includes older persons at various stages of dementia (some of whom have become disengaged from the healthcare system), older persons with chronic mental illnesses and those who are without family and informal support networks. In hospital settings, social workers routinely carry out some level of evaluation of their patients’ capacity when they work with them on discharge plans. At times, this evaluation identifies older patients who need guardians appointed to make healthcare decisions, legal interventions to facilitate placement in nursing homes when they lack close kin, or conservators to protect their finances, property, and assets. Community-based social workers often are involved in working with attorneys to implement interventions for their older clients that provide "less restrictive alternatives" to court interventions. Geriatric social workers often collaborate with physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, and attorneys throughout the process of addressing the needs of vulnerable older adults, including those with diminished capacity.

Both of us have served as directors of community-based geriatric assessment and case management programs. We have observed that social workers were often frustrated by their efforts to work with older clients who needed assistance but refused to accept help. In these situations, the social worker often grapples with difficult ethical and legal issues concerning when to intervene against a person’s will and when to respect his or her right to self-determination. In the early 1990s, we collaborated with professional case managers and graduate social work interns to develop the capacity-risk model, a conceptual guide for assessment and interventions with vulnerable older adults who live in high-risk situations, but resist accepting help (Soniat & Micklos, 1996). We have used the capacity-risk model in educational, training, consultation, and supervision sessions with professional social workers and social work students. The capacity-risk model also has been used in interdisciplinary training and consultations with physicians, psychiatrists, nurses, and attorneys. The presentation of the capacity-risk model at the 1993 Southern Gerontological Society Annual Meeting (Soniat & Micklos, 1993) resulted in requests for consultations, in-service trainings, and follow-up presentations at local, regional, and national conferences such as conference workshop presentations for: the District of Columbia Office on Aging (Soniat & Micklos, 1994), the American Society on Aging (Soniat & Micklos, 1995a), the Maryland Gerontological Society (Soniat & Micklos, 1995b), the Network of Episcopal Professionals Providing Aging Services (Soniat & Micklos, 1998), the NASW DC Metro Chapter (Soniat & Micklos, 2007), and ESM Cares and Sunrise Assisted Living (Soniat & Micklos, 2008). Over the past 15 years, it has become an integral part of the statewide training program for APS workers in Virginia; part of the content of the two-day course titled "Assessing Capacity" is based on the capacity-risk model (Virginia State Board of Social Services, 2001).

This book addresses the gap in knowledge about the role of social workers in assessing and treating the problems of vulnerable older adults. The text discusses skills effective for working with this population and presents the capacity-risk model to guide social workers with assessment and intervention decisions. The use of the capacity-risk model can help social workers generate evidence to support client self-determination and guide recommendations for sustaining older adults in community settings when appropriate. Use of the model can also, conversely, generate evidence that guides social workers toward protective interventions and alternative placements when these are more appropriate for a particular situation. This text also provides information to strengthen the knowledge base and skills of the general population of social workers whose practice involves assessing and intervening with vulnerable older adults. Demographic trends and the expanding demand for highly skilled geriatric social work practitioners to work with increasingly complex situations encountered by vulnerable older adults living in communities across the country and globally support the need for this text.
Barbara A. Soniat, PhD, MSW, is an associate professor at the Catholic University of America’s National Catholic School of Social Service (NCSSS) and director of its Center on Global Aging. She teaches MSW practice courses and a course on clinical social work practice with older adults, and she is co-principal investigator for a Council on Social Work Education gero-ed project. Dr. Soniat also serves as a commissioner for the American Bar Association’s Commission on Law and Aging. She has worked in the fields of social work and gerontology for over 30 years. For over 20 years, her career effectively integrated clinical practice, research, teaching, and interdisciplinary field-based education of professional students. Dr. Soniat is the former long-time director of the George Washington University (GWU) and IONA Senior Services geriatric assessment and case management programs, where for over two decades she implemented collaborative partnerships between a university medical center (GWU), a public agency (the Washington, DC, Office on Aging), a private agency (IONA Senior Services), and several schools of social work (NCSSS, Howard University, University of Maryland, Virginia Commonwealth University, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Alabama) and departments of psychiatry (GWU and Georgetown University). Through these endeavors, she has worked with many social workers, case managers, student learners, and colleagues to develop, test, modify, and refine models and tools for education, research, and practice with vulnerable older adults. Dr. Soniat has a strong interest in pursuing answers to practice-generated research questions. She is a featured speaker at national, international, regional, and local conferences.

Monica Melady Micklos, MSW, was the founding director of ESM Cares, a geriatric assessment and care management service under the auspices of Episcopal Senior Ministries of Washington, DC. For the past 18 years, she has worked with various institutions that are committed to promoting best practices and increasing the competencies of social workers who practice with vulnerable older adults. In her continuing efforts to improve quality of life for older adults, Ms. Micklos is currently developing a professional service that provides training and supervision to social workers and senior service agencies. She is coauthor of a model for assessing capacity of older adults and has presented workshops discussing concepts of the model at numerous local, regional, and national conferences. Ms. Micklos’s MSW is from the Catholic University of America’s National Catholic School of Social Service. She has also held social work positions at Georgetown University Hospital and Prince George’s County Hospital.
This is a wonderfully helpful book for professionals who work with older adults in a variety of settings. The Capacity-Risk Model described by the authors streamlines the assessment process and helps the professional make challenging intervention decisions including the decision of intervening on the client's behalf vs. allowing the client self determination. I used the Model repeatedly in my work as manager of older adult programs in a public agency, and found it to be an extremely useful tool for workers in the field with their clients and for supervisory consultations with staff. I am delighted that Barbara Soniat and Monica Micklos have finally published this important work.

Henriette Kellum, LCSW
Supervisor of older adult programs in a public agency 28 years, mental health therapist in private practice


Empowering Social Workers for Practice with Vulnerable Older Adults is a must read for social worker practitioners, no matter their field of practice or area of specialization.

This volume builds upon the conceptual and theoretical framework promulgated by Barbara Solomon (1976). Thus, the design and content of this volume give further impetus to the importance of Empowerment as a frame of reference for social work practice and sets forth a practice model relative to geriatrics social care, treatment and management.

This volume also addresses the importance of social workers contributing their knowledge and skills relative to the assessment of patient and family needs, care planning, transitions and continuity of care for vulnerable adults and the elderly regardless of their income, environmental factors, family situations and psychosocial dimensions.

Empowerment is envisioned as a supportive and powerful tool in the areas of geriatric social work practice involving stimulation, innovation, motivation and collaboration. This volume speaks to the ripeness of time for social workers to assist in helping to create loving, caring and appropriate environments for the continued growth, development and transition of vulnerable older adults.

The References (Selected) provide an additional, helpful scope to this practice model.

Dr. Bernice Catherine Harper, MSW, LLD


Here is an ideal practitioners' tool: Soniat and Micklos address critical issues of capacity assessment and work with involuntary vulnerable older adults using a practical model based on specific indicator-driven questions. The comprehensive presentation of concepts of capacity and risk, as well as social workers' critical contribution to their assessment and intervention, is grounded in research and evidence whenever possible. Illuminating case material pulls it all together.

Betsy Vourlekis
Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland School of Social Work