Emancipatory social work with older people: challenging students to overcome the limitations of ageism and institutional oppression



Based on the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) predictions, it is expected that 20 per cent of the Australian population will be over 65 years old by 2034 (McDonald, 2016: 65). This means that work with older people will continue to be an enormous area of growth for everyone working in human services or social policy development. To ensure that the attendant rapid growth in needs for care and other services does not result in increased marginalisation, social exclusion and oppression of this increasing demographic, social workers are well positioned to take a lead role in recognising and applying practices that do not oppress older people. It is the aim of this paper to explore how social work students can learn about practice and knowledge that aims to free older people from institutional and societal oppressions. Good practice and good policies in working with older people must be underpinned by strong theoretical understandings of the social, economic, institutional and legal consequences of becoming an older member of the community. Based on these concerns, this paper presents a specific, emancipatory social work framework for social work education about working with older people. As the length of this paper does not allow space to cover all aspects of this pedagogic approach, there will be a particular focus on two areas only, understanding ageism, and on emancipatory practice in aged care. The paper draws on the development and teaching, over a number of years, of a senior unit of study for final undergraduate social work students at the University of Sydney, who are near to completing their Bachelor of Social Work degree. This unit of study, ‘Ageing’, has been highly successful in influencing a significant shift in students’ attitudes toward older people and toward working with older people.

Author Biography

Ruth Phillips, The University of Sydney

Social Work & Policy Studies

Associate Professor


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