The importance of human growth and development for older people

The Social Care Institute for Excellence’s regular analysis of research findings behind specific social work practices. This week, older people’s educaiton and development

The social care agenda for older people is characterised by policies promoting inclusion, respect and choice. Combating age discrimination and delivering person-centred care, with a focus on dignity and integration in care, have been as the standards required for good health and social services.

There is a shortage of qualified social workers who work with older people. Moreover, the requirements for social work training do not include specific teaching on issues specific to older people.

Although human growth development (HGD), from childhood to old age, is a central requirement of qualifying social work education, the extent to which this training includes human growth development of older people (HGDOP) varies and approaches to training on older people’s issues depends on the institution.

Despite the range of approaches, some shared aims, practice and outcomes of teaching HGDOP can be identified.


Approaches to HGDOP teaching and learning revealed several aims which can be grouped as follows:

● Theoretical understanding

HGDOP teaching and learning should build up students’ theoretical knowledge and enable them to apply it to their practice. It should also provide students with opportunities to develop their critical analysis skills.

● Shifting attitudes

Training should change attitudes to older people by challenging existing stereotypes or introducing students to materials with which they were unwilling to engage. Teaching and learning on HGDOP can also encourage a personalised approach, moving students away from the “checklist” style of work with older people.

● Building on skills

Exposure to older people and their life stories can improve students’ communication and listening skills. Participants in training are more confident talking to older people about difficult subjects and may become more effective listeners and observers.

● Reflective practice

Through the training, students can prepare for the emotional responses that may be occur when working with older people.

● Driving up standards of practice

The training can address the shortage of skilled practitioners working with older people.

● Increasing interest in the area

Focusing on HGDOP may encourage students who had been unwilling to work with older people in practice placements do so and perhaps consider careers in the area.


Approaches to HGDOP teaching and learning depend on the institution or teacher but they tend to be shaped by these factors:

● Programme design:

Learning and teaching on HGDOP does not fit neatly into qualifying social work education. It tends to be covered within HGD modules but it is not always included in modules focused on practice. Further, the quantity of subject matter covered by HGD and the focus on child development can lead to reduced time spent on older people.

● Outside involvement:

Despite teaching practitioners’ commitment to involving older people in the teaching and learning pro­cess, the extent to which older people are involved in HGDOP modules varies, as does the level of involvement by practitioners and other stakeholders. Practical factors, such as the timings of lessons, can contribute to the limited input from relevant external groups.

● Practice learning:

Practice learning is seen as a core part of HGDOP education, but practical elements tend to be classroom-based, largely because of scheduling factors. Often the practical component will involve students drawing on case studies or from their own experience.

● Teaching approaches

These tend to be experimental rather than theoretical. They often follow a programme of engaging interest, challenging stereotypes, then increasing self-reflection and building empathy.

Techniques include using literature, film and documentaries to enthuse students and raise awareness. They may also be encouraged to think in terms of their own relations and acquaintances, to share their experiences of older people with each other and to think in terms of a being part of a community with older people.

● Assessment

There is not always an automatic assessment on HGDOP as a discrete module or as part of HGD. If older people are part of the HGD assessment module, it tends to be one of several options available. This means that many programmes are unable to evaluate students’ understanding through assessed material.


The shortage of evaluative literature and assessment data from practical teaching on HGDOP makes it difficult to draw conclusions on the effectiveness of approaches. However, the Scie knowledge review recommends focusing on two areas:


● A UK research base on HGDOP and social work in education in relation to HGDOP should be developed.

● All participants in HGDOP should be involved in this research. The views of students should be supplemented by those of service users and practitioners.

Teaching and learning

● The parameters of HGD in relation to older people should be clarified.

● Flexible models of service or practical learning should be incorporated into HGDOP.

● Teaching methods should challenge ageist and other oppressive attitudes towards older people.

● HGD should be integrated across the curriculum and within practice learning and assessment.

● Alternative ways need to be found to manage these resource intensive developments.

Further information
➔ Le Riche P, Boushel M and Sharland E, Scie Knowledge Review 23: Teaching and learning human growth and development in social work education: older people

Help the Aged

General Social Care Council


Author TANNER Harris, HARRIS John

Title Working with older people

Publisher Routledge, 2008, 270p

Abstract Working with older people has become an increasingly important part of social work education and practice. Whether you are studying community care, adult services, human growth and development, or social work processes and interventions, this book will be a source of information and help. Working with Older People provides a framework of knowledge, skills and values pertinent to qualifying social work courses and the new post-qualifying award in social work with adults.

Author MOWLAM Alice et al

Title UK study of abuse and neglect of older people: qualitative findings

Publisher Comic Relief, Department of Health, 2007, 90p.

Abstract This study was carried out by the National Centre for Social Research and King’s College London and was commissioned and co-funded by Comic Relief and the Department of Health. It presents findings of in-depth interviews with a selection of older people who have had experiences of abuse and mistreatment.

Author Department of Health

Title Requirements for social work training

Reference Department of Health, 2002, 9p

Abstract The new social work degree will require social workers to demonstrate their practical application of skills and knowledge and their ability to deliver a service that creates opportunities for users. It will require all social workers to demonstrate their knowledge of human growth and development, their communication skills and their ability to work confidently with other professionals. The emphasis will be on practice and the practical relevance of the theory. Students will have to undertake much of their learning in practice settings.


Title The need for a common language to describe older people’s housing

Publisher Housing Corporation, 2008, 3p

Abstract A discussion paper from phase one of the Towards a Common Currency project noted that elderly people are often confused by the definitions and descriptions used to describe housing and other support. In this part of the project, researchers discovered that most social housing landlords did not give sufficiently detailed descriptions of housing developments or schemes to elderly people or those acting on their behalf.

Author O LUNANAIGH Conor, LAWLOR Brian A

Title Loneliness and the health of older people.

Reference International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 23(12), December 2008, pp1213-1221

Abstract Loneliness is common in older people and is associated with adverse health consequences both from a mental and physical health point of view. There needs to be an increased focus on initiating intervention strategies that can be used to target loneliness in order to determine whether decreasing loneliness can improve quality of life and functioning in elderly people.

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