2020 has been a year of unexpected challenges for many organizations, communities, and individuals.  One segment of the population that has been highly impacted by the challenges of the current pandemic is the older generation in the US.  We know this pandemic has impacted this group because not only are they at “high-risk” for more severe medical outcomes if they become ill, but also older adults, specifically discussed here grandparents in caregiving roles and their multi-generational families, have been impacted by the economic and social challenges we are facing in unique ways.  In addition to the generational complexities, we know the wide disparities in health outcomes associated with race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic factors intersect with age to create a higher risk for some individuals and families than others.  In light of Healthy Aging Month in September, we highlight ways in which many individuals in this demographic who often function as formal or informal caregivers have been challenged this year and ways in which we can hope to provide support.

Situational snapshot

We know that the pandemic has had a significant impact on families and specifically multi-generational relationships and households. These households often have members that are considered high-risk, including older individuals.  In cases where grandparents had been formally or informally providing critical support to their children and grandchildren, these months have brought unique challenges and difficult choices.

To get a sense of the scope, over seven million children in the United States live in households headed by grandparents or other relatives. Before the pandemic, over 2.5 million grandparents reported that they were responsible for their grandchildren’s needs. In addition, one out of four children under 5 years old are looked after by grandparents while parents attend work or school.  Out of these grandparent caregivers, one-fifth (21%) live at or below the poverty level. We’ve written about the relationship between the child welfare system and the opioid epidemic in the past, and the strain this has put on the already taxed system as well as individual caregivers.  As might be expected, research from the Census Bureau has also found a correlation between the rise in the opioid crisis and the number of grandparents raising grandchildren.

In recent months, many of these grandparent caregiving roles have shifted significantly. Some families have had to rely on extended family networks, often including grandparents, for caregiving, with school and childcare settings closed for months.  Those that were already providing care have often taken on more challenging roles as the caregiving hours expand from after-school and homework help to full-day caregiving responsibilities, with duties of not only supervision but also homeschooling. Other families have not been able to rely on those supports they counted on previously, out of caution or concern about exposure for those individuals categorized as high-risk.   With that, some grandparents have been isolated from family members, sometimes for months at a time.  The balance of months of trying to achieve social distancing, or at least physical distancing, while being mindful of the significant impact of isolation on mental health has been something that each family has had to navigate as well.  And with back-to-school season upon us, families face the uncertainties of a new school year ahead, trying to balance the challenges and competing needs of the well-being of all family members, with no easy answers. 

It’s critical to note also that this crisis has not impacted all older adults in the same way, but has exacerbated many existing systems of inequality in our society along the lines of age, race, and socioeconomic status.  Not everyone is at equal risk.  The strain that this pandemic has put on older adults and families already struggling with poverty, access to resources, childcare, and opportunity has been exacerbated this year as well.  

What we can do

We know that the challenges are great and, in many ways, unprecedented. Many individuals and organizations have sprung into action, and many may still be asking what they can do.  At an individual level, Generations United has developed a comprehensive COVID-19 Fact Sheet for Grandfamilies and Multigenerational Families that contains relevant resources for grandparents and children, including crisis hotlines, COVID-19 information, and assistance program information.

In response to this crisis, many social service organizations have drastically and rapidly shifted their service delivery in many ways that may have previously been unimaginable. While the social service sector is already taxed in so many ways, organizations have been assisting by repositioning themselves and adapting their service models to support caregivers and families in new ways, including supply assistance, as in the case described here.  Organizations have also in many cases quickly adjusted their service delivery models to provide a higher level of virtual support for caregivers through the use of technology (friendly reminder, COA has standards for that!).

At a macro level, The Center for the Study of Social Policy has published this informative brief that discusses challenges faced by a range of kinship caregivers who may need supports during the pandemic. It offers recommendations for steps we can take to address these challenges at a policy level. 

We know there are many others providing support and resources to those in need.  How has your organization or community responded?  What other resources have you found helpful or are you seeking as an individual or provider to support the well-being of this population? For Healthy Aging Month and Back-to-School season, please share in the comments below as we continue to seek ways to partner with the human and social service community to address these challenging circumstances.

“I want to make the world a better place. I want to help vulnerable people in my community. I want a career where I feel like I’m making a difference.”

Are any of those sentiments familiar to you? They are to me and to many of the social workers I know. After all we were drawn to this profession for those reasons.  After completing school, many of us found work in social services and therapeutic clinical settings. We take the skills we’ve acquired in life and in school out into our chosen field of practice – schools, non-profit organizations, mental health clinics – and we employ our strengths-based, person-in-environment framework to engage clients and communities in meeting their goals and improving their circumstances.

When we look at what we call our environments, however, our focus as social workers leans heavily on our social environments, and looks less at our natural environmental landscape and the impact that nature has on us as human beings and on our communities at large.

As a result, historically, social work has mostly seemed to leave the work of environmental justice to others. We’re doing so much already, we’re not superheroes! If we shift our thinking a bit however, and begin to examine the connection between the natural environment and our clients’ well-being, there is a strong case to be made that the environmental justice work that’s being done is more related to our mission as social workers than ever before.

Environmental justice

The concept of environmental justice isn’t new, but in my experience, it’s not something that is discussed very often within the framework of social work. Here’s a quick layman’s overview pulled together by this laywoman. The Environmental Protection Agency has defined this concept as “The fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”

From the social work perspective, the Council for Social Work Education developed a nuanced definition emphasizing not only the equal involvement and treatment of all people, but the right of all people to high levels of environmental protection: “Environmental justice occurs when all people equally experience high levels of environmental protection and no group or community is excluded from the environmental policy decision-making process, nor is affected by a disproportionate impact from environmental hazards. Environmental justice affirms the ecological unity and the interdependence of all species, respect for cultural and biological diversity, and the right to be free from ecological destruction. This includes responsible use of ecological resources, including the land, water, air, and food.” By emphasizing not only that all people have the right to be treated equally, but that all people have the right to be treated well, the focus is not only standing for equality. Its also standing up for all of us and our quality of life on earth.

When you begin to look at the connection between the natural environment and climate, and how this matters to social work, and the communities we serve, it’s pretty straightforward. Consider these scenarios: oil spills, air pollution, hurricanes and then of course Flint, Michigan.  Way back in 1987, when some of us were in diapers and some of us were in hair bands, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States showed that race was “the single most important factor in determining where toxic waste facilities were sited in the United States.” In the years since this study, mounting evidence has developed around the connection between environmental issues and racial and socio-economic justice issues and awareness of the intersection between these areas has grown. We now know that “people from marginalized and underserved communities are disproportionately impacted by climate change, drought, and pollution.”

The bottom line: this is another factor negatively impacting the communities we work to serve.

Nurturing through nature

So, that was a bummer. On the flip side though, I think it’s important to highlight that not only are the communities we serve disproportionately impacted when the natural environment is polluted, but that there are many potential benefits that can be gained from interacting with the natural environment. That is, of course, another reason for us to fight to preserve it.

The benefits of exposure to nature are real and spectacular. Whether it is walking in the forest to lower blood pressure or increasing ability to focus, or as this National Geographic article, This is Your Brain on Nature discusses, spending time outside to improve problem-solving, the benefits of exposure to the natural environment have been well documented. The field of ecotherapy for example, explores the therapeutic value of exposure to nature as an alternative tool for improving mental health. Programs like the Fresh Air Fund and Outward Bound provide opportunities for participants to gain skills and experience interacting with nature through immersive programming. And for those interested, COA’s research-based standards for Wilderness and Adventure-Based Therapeutic Outdoor Services outline best practices for implementing services based on this premise.

Social workers are natural helpers

Most of you reading this are probably aware of the unique skill set of social workers, but nevertheless, let’s take an opportunity to remind you (#notsohumblebragalert): social workers are known as strong empathizers, communicators, advocates, and organizers. Those skills are critical in not only traditional social work settings, but valuable in almost any work setting — traditional or non-traditional. And so while we often examine the concept of person-in-environment, (this blog has discussed the impact of built environments), how often do we specifically include our ecological or natural environment? If we choose to use these skills in the environmental justice realm, think of the power that could have to shape not only our built environments, but our natural environment as well. In that regard, a relatively new field, being referred to as Green Social Work, has developed around the emerging realization of the connectedness between our natural environment and our quality of life.

For social workers, how exciting is it to think about how we can use those advocacy skills to fight for access to clean drinking water? We can use our communication skills to break down what can feel overwhelming and hopeless (what if we looked at the way people use aversion of fear as a form of denial not only in our clients’ personal lives, but in regard to these global environmental concerns as well — hello, coping skills 101). And we can use our social justice lens to examine the need for equality not only in regard to social equality, but in regard to natural resource equality.

It’s worth looking at the following statement within the context above — “Social workers should promote the general welfare of society, from local to global levels, and the development of people, their communities, and their environments. Social workers should advocate for living conditions conducive to the fulfillment of basic human needs and should promote social, economic, political, and cultural values and institutions that are compatible with the realization of social justice.” That’s the NASW Code of Ethics in regard to Social Workers’ “ethical responsibilities to the broader society.” It goes on to say that in regard to social and political action, social workers “should engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services, and opportunities they require to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully.” It’s hard to argue that clean water, air, and land are not part of that tenet.

Team green: How your organization can make a difference

So, what should we do? Take a hike? Well, in the literal sense, YES! In the figurative sense, NO!

As social workers, as leaders of our organizations, as human beings on this planet — starting from our favorite strengths-based perspective — are there ways your organization already takes steps to reduce the environmental impact of its daily operations? Examples might include instituting a recycling program, using environmentally friendly products, and/or reducing water and energy consumption. This is a great start! Give yourself a goldish-green star. To formalize this, if you haven’t already, you might consider creating a Green Team of interested employees who want to work on environmental initiatives for staff inside and outside of the office. Many benefits of this can overlap with those of an employee volunteer initiative, if you have established one of those. Speaking of which…we already discussed the benefits of having an employee volunteer initiative when we explored ways the principle of corporate social responsibility (CSR) might be applicable to social service organizations on this blog. If this is something that you have implemented or are thinking about doing, it’s great to consider the opportunities to partner with environmentally-focused organizations. It switches it up from your day-to-day work, and might lead to future collaboration. At the very least, it exposes your staff to environmental activism and provides support in a needed area.

More broadly, CSR programs often encompass “a company’s sense of responsibility toward the community and environment (both ecological and social) in which it operates.” Viewing your for-profit or non-profit organization through this lens, as an entity with responsibility for the community and the environment in which you operate, it’s important to consider all ways in which you operate within, and have an impact on, the broader environment. While it may not be the ideal motivator, there is certainly a case to be made that there is an overlap between some of these efforts and your financial bottom line (hello, lower paper and energy bills). As a social service provider, you are already contributing to educational and/or social programs. Are there ways you can examine your impact on the environment as well?

The end of the rainbow is green

The point of this isn’t to scare you, overwhelm, or green wash you. The hope is that this emphasizes perhaps a new, personal connection between two traditionally disparate areas of justice, and makes us think about some ways in which they truly intersect. There is a case to be made that social workers are uniquely equipped and also ethically bound, to include environmental justice in our framework, even if it means expanding our purview of what it means to be social workers. Because at the end of the day – what are we fighting for, if not a better world, in every sense of the word.

P.S. One final note: if all of that isn’t moving you to take action, if you, like me, like brunch, maybe this will.

The social and human services field might conjure images of social workers seeing clients all day in their offices or case managers out on home visits, and although these are aspects of many jobs in this field, the day-to-day reality is often a bit more varied.   Social service organizations include a wide array of roles such as human resource directors, finance managers, quality improvement specialists to name a few.  And even for clinicians or those in direct practice a good amount of time is spent completing paperwork and other administrative tasks. While these are critical functions of our organizations, those tasks might not be what first attracted us to the social services field. Often, the pull to work in this field comes out of a desire to “give back” or “do good”.  And while all tasks in our organizations help to advance the important missions that we signed on for, some of us may still be looking for more or different ways to give back.  Many of us might already volunteer for nonprofit boards, give to charity, or volunteer our skills more directly on our own time. Creating or participating in a volunteer initiative in the workplace might assist with scratching an altruistic itch and benefit our organizations at the same time. 

What is CSR? Though this is a broad term that is still considered to be evolving, generally Corporate Social Responsibility or CSR refers to "A company's sense of responsibility towards the community and environement (both ecological and social) in which it operates." To see some fun examples, here are three from companies you may have heard of: Salesforce, Patagonia, and Comcast NBCUniversal.

You may have heard of the terms corporate social responsibility or corporate philanthropy and thought they weren’t relevant to your organization. The first instinct might be “Our whole function is to create social impact driven by our mission.  We don’t need to/have time for/have the energy for additional volunteer work”.  You might be surprised to discover that there are still opportunities and interest at your organization to incorporate the essence of these ideas.  Specifically, one way is to create a space for employees to give back through volunteer initiatives.  After reading on, I hope you’ll find that there are various ways in which doing so can positively reverberate through your work environment, from boosting morale to encouraging closer work with the community you serve.

What are the benefits?

I think it’s hard to overstate the benefits of creating a space for employee volunteerism.  For fun, let’s frame it in the context of some COA standards. After all the standards outline best practice! 

Human Resources (HR) and Personnel Development and Training (TS)

Staff satisfaction and retention is an area that challenges many organizations in our field. Creating workplace initiatives that keep staff connected to each other and the organization’s mission is one way to help address this.  Employee volunteerism initiatives can be a great benefit or perk to highlight for recruiting purposes and to raise morale for current staff. It might be challenging to increase pay or vacation time, but maybe your organization can consider allowing employees time for volunteer activities.

"We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give." - Winston Churchill
            Winston Churchill

The opportunity to volunteer as a team, department or organization also serves as an opportunity for team building, or dare I say “bonding”.  Getting outside the walls of your office and the routine of your day-to-day can allow you to get to know your co-workers in a new light and increase cross-departmental collaboration and relationships.   

It also provides an opportunity to develop and demonstrate skills that you might not otherwise have occasion to use while at work. Participating in something different than typical day to day activities can allow opportunities for a newer or more junior staff member to shine in their leadership skills if given the opportunity.  Staff might also have an opportunity to develop skills while volunteering. Maybe you can even consider sponsoring an external volunteer organization to come in to train your staff.  Some organizations here in New York City require a one-day training in order to volunteer with them.  If staff are able to get that training together and through work, it opens up the opportunity for them to volunteer together or on their own.

Community involvement (GOV / AFM)

Another great benefit of volunteering in your local community is the opportunity for community involvement and creating perhaps unexpected partnerships that raise awareness of your mission and presence in the community.  You aren’t doing this for PR, but often increased community connections and awareness of your brand is an added benefit.  If you have tee-shirts or hats with your branding, and it feels appropriate, you can ask staff to wear them while volunteering to build name recognition.

An event that takes place outside of normal work hours but can be a great opportunity for staff to come together is participating in a walk or fundraiser.  Perhaps your organization sponsors a team for a charity walk and then gets outside together on a weekend to participate. Maybe your nonprofit can even offer to trade with another nonprofit and partner to volunteer for each other one day a year.  You never know what unexpected relationships can be born out of volunteerism. 

One other outside the box idea is if your organization sponsors conferences or events, can you incorporate an aspect of giving back?  Maybe an optional day tagged onto the end of a conference for a volunteer activity?

Performance Quality Improvement (PQI)

Lastly, of course – this is COA – we have to tie it to PQI!  One way you might consider looking at creating volunteer opportunities at your organization is to incorporate it into your PQI initiatives.  If staff express interest, this absolutely works in relation to any of the areas listed above and tied into goals around staff retention, community awareness, or cross-departmental collaboration, for example.

Show me the data

Speaking of PQI, of course in this day and age, you want your decisions to be supported by stats and data.  Well, lucky for you, we’ve got it:

COA – Practice what you preach

Here in lower Manhattan at the COA offices, we think this is one area where we definitely walk the walk.  After Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast and New York City hard in 2012, COA staffers spent a day on Staten Island cleaning out a home affected by the storm.  Even for those of us in New York who lived through it, the impact of seeing the devastation to that part of the city was sobering.  It also was a wakeup call that we as staff were eager to give back outside of our day to day work, and appreciated the opportunity to get out of the office, roll our sleeves up, and interact with our community.  After that event, staff expressed (through our staff suggestion box!) that COA should formalize an employee volunteer initiative. The COA Volunteer Committee was born out of this experience. 

To date, thanks to dedicated staff and support from COA leadership, the COA Volunteer Committee has been up and running for over five years. Highlights include reading stories to kids, chaperoning an urban garden project, cleaning up Governors Island, shucking corn for a food bank, lending our hands for a meal delivery organization, donating to coat and backpack drives, and more. 

The internal response to these initiatives has been overwhelmingly positive.  On staff surveys, we’ve heard feedback like “The volunteer activities promote team-building, a sense of community and positively contribute to staff morale”, “generates collaboration” and, our favorite – it gives “the warm fuzzies”. 

Helpful tips

To leave you with some tips from our experience:

In the end, only kindness matters

Clearly, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to volunteer initiatives for social and human service organizations. What works at one organization, might not be a fit at another.  However, based on the data, as well as our experience at COA, I encourage you to give some thought and get creative about how this might look for your organization.  Maybe start small with just your team or department sponsoring a coat drive this year.  Or, some of you may already have robust volunteer initiatives in full swing at your organizations. We’d love to hear about workplace volunteer efforts you may have participated in or put into place at your organization.  Please share any questions, thoughts or success stories below!