SWAG (Social Work in Aging & Gerontology)

Recipient: February 2009

SWAG is an informal network of social workers in the Ottawa region who have a strong interest in aging issues and work with seniors and their families. Amanda Masterson, Beverlee McIntosh and Barbara Burns, providing much of the leadership of SWAG over the past 20 years, were interviewed in advance of National Social Work Week which is being celebrated March 2-8, 2009 under the theme: "Social Workers Making a Difference in the Lives of Older Adults and Their Families".  SWAG and its members are being recognized by OASW as Inspirational Leaders during National Social Work Week.

SWAG includes social workers in many fields of practice including direct practice, health, research, teaching, and resource development. Since its inception in 1987, SWAG has met regularly since 1988 approximately 8 times per year. From the beginning, an effort has been made to maintain autonomy, particularly from employers, allowing SWAG members to speak and act independently on issues of concern. However, SWAG has maintained an affiliation with the OASW Eastern Branch for a number of years, participating on the Branch Board of Directors, assisting in advocacy issues such as the position paper on provincial long-term care legislation, as well as accepting support with printing and postage costs in the days before email.

SWAG monthly meetings are hosted at no cost in facilities with easy parking access and which generously provide refreshments. Up to 20 social workers attend, depending on the education topic and the weather. In addition, a summary of each monthly topic is emailed to a group of approximately 100 social workers.

The goals of SWAG are: to promote professionalism and social work expertise in gerontology; to network, share information and provide mutual support; to identify issues and gaps in services; to take social action on issues in gerontology; and to support research and program evaluation. In fulfilling its social advocacy mandate, SWAG has had a representative on the OASW Committee on Issues of Aging. Recently, SWAG requested OASW advocacy, which resulted in a letter to the Minister Responsible for Seniors about social workers' concern that the provincial government was not moving forward on its commitment to regulate retirement homes.

Amanda Masterson and Beverlee McIntosh comment that SWAG provides social workers with a regular opportunity to explore and debate issues, to network, to reflect on their work and to be empowered as a profession and as individual clinicians. Adds Amanda: "We use each other as resources." The network is very inclusive of students and new graduates who are made to feel welcome as soon as they arrive. Barbara Burns reports that this spirit of inclusiveness is extended as well to newcomers both to Ottawa and to the area of gerontology in social work practice.

Beverlee explains that SWAG's Steering Committee holds one meeting a year to plan for the upcoming months. The Steering Committee identifies topics of interest, brainstorms for possible speakers, then assigns a facilitator and recorder for each meeting. This structure allows them to share the responsibility of leadership and ensures minimal workload, as each committee member records and facilitates only 1-2 times a year. The immense variety and relevance of topics together with the high quality and knowledge of presenters have kept participants involved and interested for more than 20 years, and it has evolved into an extraordinary forum. Barbara comments: "One of the interesting things has been to observe how intently the speakers at the meetings listen to the feedback from the SWAG participants - they are very much interested in hearing what social workers have to say in response to their presentation."

According to Beverlee, one of SWAG's strengths is that it allows professional growth in a supportive environment. Barbara notes the high degree of collegiality, while Amanda recalls how welcome she felt at her first SWAG meeting, even before she began her social work studies. All agree that SWAG has been instrumental in identifying emerging issues by bringing together a group of diverse social workers. Beverlee adds: "Working with seniors and their families may not sound glamorous, but once you are in it, it's wonderful. Talking together empowers us to take ideas back to our own organizations."

Amanda believes that to be a leader: "You really need to believe in what you do and be willing to mentor students and new graduates." According to Beverlee, "a leader empowers people and allows them to learn from their mistakes". Barbara suggests that leaders need enthusiasm and commitment, and to know when to step aside and allow others to come in with new ideas.

Barbara, Amanda and Beverlee all encourage social workers in other fields of practice to duplicate the SWAG model, which is low-cost and highly rewarding for all involved. Amanda says: "It invigorates you to meet others with the same passion in your field of practice." 

SWAG and its members are inspirational leaders in the social work community - inclusive, empowering, and mutually supportive. During Social Work Week, March 2-8, 2009, and throughout the year, take the time to acknowledge social workers who make a difference in the lives of older adults and their families.