Being a caregiver or someone’s voice is taxing when it’s one person, much less a social worker’s full caseload. That’s why Mississippi State incorporates numerous field experiences for students into the degree program. Classes often incorporate discussions so students can talk about their experiences and learn from each other.

hen the first baby boomers turned 65 in 2011, they ushered in a new era for America’s service industries.

Boomers are living longer, more independently and with less family support than their parents, and as more and more reach retirement age, this gray wave brings with it an increased need for services related to senior citizens.

“The elderly population is expanding and that’s going to bring up a whole host of more intensive needs to be met,” explained Melinda Pilkinton, director of the social work program within the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Sociology at Mississippi State University.

Though most people associate social work with children and families, Pilkinton said the discipline has long served the needs of senior citizens.

“We work with people across the lifespan,” Pilkinton explained. “From birth to death, we help people with whatever they might need to enrich their quality of life and be more functional.

“For the elderly, that means helping them live as independently as possible, retain dignity as they age and continue to make their own decisions as long as possible.”

The U.S. Census Bureau reports more than 47.8 million Americans are aged 65 or older. That’s 14.9 percent of the population, the largest percentage of seniors the country has ever had—and it’s growing.

For those reaching that milestone, it’s more than just a statistic. Hitting retirement age comes with a series of lifestyle, financial and often health changes. And more so than those from previous generations, many boomers who cross that threshold find themselves not only dealing with personal changes, but caring for aging parents or, in some cases, young dependents as well.

“Making the plans and decisions that come with growing older can be difficult, so many times people need advocates. That’s where social work comes in,” Pilkinton said. “Social workers are there to help navigate complicated issues and make sure people’s needs are met.”

Being the voice for one person, much less a social worker’s full caseload, is taxing. That’s why Pilkinton said Mississippi State’s social work degree is designed to not only expose students to the theories and practices that will allow them to work with any population, but also to test their mettle, starting with shadowing professionals during their first semester.

“Most students who major in social work know they want to help people, but don’t necessarily know how,” Pilkinton said. “We start exposing them to real-world experiences as soon as possible because they need to know right way if social work isn’t right for them.

TOP: Melinda Pilkinton serves as director of the social work program at Mississippi State. MIDDLE: Senior Keunshea Fleming, a social work major from Jackson, completed her field practicum with Fresenius Kidney Care in Columbus. BOTTOM: Celie Beardain, a 2016 social work graduate, serves as the social worker for the 60-bed Carrington Nursing Center in Starkville.

“Social work has an established code of ethics and it is unconditional acceptance,” she continued. “We’re nonjudgmental and work with anybody. So, if a student can’t accept everybody—even the most difficult to accept—there are plenty of majors that will allow them to help people in other ways.”

A two-semester, theory-based class helps students build the foundational knowledge needed to assist populations of all ages and circumstances. Field experiences, such as volunteering and internships, ensure students are exposed to a variety of social work careers, which can involve working with any group from children and families to the aged, addicted, ill or incarcerated.

Pilkinton said no matter the group, social workers start by focusing on the positives.

“We’re strengths-based, meaning we don’t look for a diagnosis first,” Pilkinton explained. “We look for what people have going right in their lives, what they can build on.”

Celie Beardain puts that strengths-first focus into practice every day at Starkville’s Carrington Nursing Center, which can house as many as 60 individuals at any time.

“Each resident is different,” the 2016 graduate said. “They all have different needs and different things going on in their lives, and it’s my job to make sure everyone’s well-being is taken care of.”

Beardain said she always knew she wanted to work with the elderly, but like many new graduates, she didn’t get to start with her preferred population. Her first job as a field educator with the Family Resource Center in Columbus focused on families, but she said the broad education she received at Mississippi State allowed her to adapt.

“I don’t know if anyone is ever 100 percent prepared for their first job after graduation, but getting out of the classroom and into the world to see how things are really done helps you get there,” Beardain explained. “Books are important but so is getting out and seeing.

“The social work program at State is demanding of us because these 60 residents are demanding of me,” she continued. “If you don’t learn to work under pressure as a student, you’ll have a hard time doing it when so many people depend on you.”

Keunshea Fleming, a senior from Jackson, agrees. She said her field practicum with Fresenius Kidney Care in Columbus has been an “eye-opener.”

“Teachers stress how important what you’re learning is, but nothing compares to your learning experience in the field,” Fleming said. “It’s nerve-wracking when you do your first assessment by yourself but you’ve seen it done, you’ve done your research, and now it’s just a matter of going in and doing it. And in the end, you know you’ve done something great because you’ve taken those skills you learned and applied them.”

Field practicum is the final requirement before obtaining a bachelor’s in social work from Mississippi State. It is an immersive, semester-long experience that has students working 40-hour weeks as social workers under the supervision of experienced professionals. But rather than helping her narrow down her career aspirations, Fleming said the experience has fueled her desire to find innovative ways to help as many people as possible.

“It’s so inspiring to work with these groups and help improve their quality of life,” Fleming said. “I have big dreams for ways to help underserved populations and I’m excited to get started.”

Every day, Celie Beardain sees people struggle to make the “right” decisions for their families as they face the realities of aging or illness.

It’s often an emotionally fraught time made more complicated by uncertainties, unfamiliar situations and financial strain. However, Beardain and Melinda Pilkinton agree that thoughtful planning and frank discussions can help families navigate this difficult time.

“People should think about end-of-life decisions and make sure their family knows their wishes, and they should do it early because when the time comes they might not be able to,” said Pilkinton, an associate professor in social work and program director.

Among the things she recommends people have are:

  • advance directives, also known as living wills, that outline one’s wishes for end-of-life care;

  • durable power of attorney, which allows a specified “agent” to handle specific health, financial or legal responsibilities;

  • and a last will and testament that addresses posthumous wishes, including distribution of property.

  • “It’s hard enough to lose someone when you have all of that,” Pilkinton said. “It’s horrible to lose someone without it.”

    It’s not a topic people like to think about, especially when they’re active and healthy, but Beardain said it’s important to have these discussions early—even if they’re uncomfortable.

    “No one wants to be a burden to their family and no family wants to be afraid they’re making the wrong decision for their loved one,” Beardain said. “That’s why you have to put your feelings aside and have these conversations.”

    Beardain also said it’s important to let individuals make their own decisions as long as possible and to factor in their likes and dislikes when looking for the right care situation, whether it’s home health care, assisted living or a nursing facility.

    “Be open-minded, but know what you’re looking for,” Beardain said. “Some facilities are activity-based, while others focus on interaction, therapy or just making someone comfortable.”

    Finally, she said to remember there are people out there who can help explain the options or connect individuals with the services to best aid their families.

    “Social workers are like the calm in the storm,” Beardain said. “We know the systems and have the resources, and it’s our job to make sure everyone who needs services has those needs met.”

    By Susan Lassetter | Select photos by Megan Bean