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HEALTH CONNECTION

Aging population needs social services workers

By David Chilton
Special to the Toronto Sun


The bad news is you're going to get old. The good news is there's never been a better time to do it.

Or as Seneca College's Tom Raterman says, "We've never had this many old people for this long and so we're redefining what aging is; we're redefining what normal aging is."


Raterman should know. He's a professor in the social services worker program -- gerontology at Seneca that began in 1987. It's still only one of two of its kind in the GTA. The other is at Oakville's Sheridan College.

The two-year program at Seneca takes 40 students a year who work can either work towards a diploma in general social services or specialize in gerontology. Either way, it's slog. "It's a strenuous program," Raterman says. "The skill you need is time management."

He isn't joking. As well as their course work, students have to complete a minimum of 600 hours of field work in settings where they can put into practice what they've learned in the classroom. That could mean case management, leading physical or social activation programs, one to one counselling, sitting on family councils and providing palliative care in an institution or through a community-based agency.

To cope with course work and field placements, and to deal with the demands of their charges who may or may not be frail or infirm but who are in their 60s, 70s or older (in the jargon of gerontology "old-old" is 87 and up), students also need certain personal attributes, says Raterman.
TOM RATERMAN
Seneca College


Foremost among them is empathy, he says. But students also have to have both intellectual and experiential knowledge of their patients; they need to be critical thinkers; and they need to be honest. Raterman says before students are allowed to work with a vulnerable population they have to pass a police check.

One of Raterman's second-year students is Chris Imecs, who has a law degree from his native Romania.

Imecs says he did lots of research before choosing gerontology. He says it showed the demand for people trained to work with seniors is growing, "and the chances are great you'll get a job." He's also a "people person," says Imecs, and with family already working in the field, the Seneca program made sense.

Female profession

Imecs, who's on field placement at Etobicoke Services for Seniors in Toronto's West End, is something of an anomaly in the gerontology stream. Raterman says in this year's intake there is one man. Felicity Morris, co-ordinator of the program, says, "I believe we have never gone beyond three (male students) in a year." She says Seneca has no plans to attract more males, but it's aware of the imbalance and she acknowledges elderly men may feel more comfortable dealing with other men in some circumstances.
QUICK FACTS
  • Seneca's social services worker - gerontology stream is taught on the King City campus north of Toronto.
  • The program accepts 40 students every September.
  • The student body is virtually all female.
  • Starting pay for graduates is unexceptional, but their employment rate is about 100%.


  • The age range of the Seneca students varies. Raterman says about three-quarters of them are in their 20s with the rest anywhere up to their 50s. Applicants need a high school diploma to be accepted, although some, especially career changers, have a degree. Often, adds Morris, students in the program are personal support workers who want to move up. Tuition is about $2,200.

    The pay in this occupation isn't great. Raterman says a graduate who entered the program straight from high school can expect to make in the low $30,000s to start, although someone who has a degree can expect to make a fair bit more.

    Job prospects, unlike growing old, however, are just dandy. The employment rate for graduates is more or less 100%.



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