Her father's words about serving humanity have echoed in Elizabeth Sukys-Rice's heart throughout her life, leading her to a career as a geriatric social worker.

For Saint Leo University alumna Elizabeth Sukys-Rice, the road to becoming a geriatric social worker has been more of a zig-zag than a straight line.

That journey began with love for her grandfather and learning early about the responsibility to care for others. But it also included dropping out of high school, working in customer service, becoming a certified nursing assistant (CNA), and serving as an administrator for senior living properties, before it eventually led to a master of social work degree and a successful geriatric social work practice.

Developing a giving heart

Elizabeth's desire to help others and the elderly, in particular, started at as a child. Her parents and grandfather immigrated to the United States following World War II and lived together in Michigan. One of Elizabeth's responsibilities as a young girl was to help her grandfather come to the kitchen every day for meals. Doing so imprinted a lasting image in her mind.

"I vividly remember his wrinkled hands," she says. "They felt so warm and strong."

Elizabeth's mother was her grandfather's primary caregiver, and after he passed away, she decided to become a registered nurse. Helping her mom study sparked an interest in topics related to medicine, and following her father's example cultivated her compassion.

"My father had a tremendous zest for life. He'd say, 'If you have working legs and working hands, you owe it to humanity to go and do something for someone else,'" Elizabeth says. Modeling service for his daughter, he took her to low-income areas of town to hand out clothing and other items to people from the trunk of his car.

Zigging and zagging

As a teenager, however, Elizabeth went through a period of rebellion. She dropped out of high school and became a single mother at age 19. After a few months of working at a credit reporting company, her father's words echoing in her heart, she yearned for a job where she could give back and impact lives.

As a result, she moved to Florida to be near her parents and became a CNA. She found honor and a sense of spirituality in caring for the elderly at an especially vulnerable time in their lives.

After a patient whom Elizabeth had cared for passed away, she decided to pursue a less intimate way of making a difference. She switched to a career marketing and managing senior care facilities. She eventually took a job managing an assisted living facility for veterans, low-income individuals, and individuals with mental health challenges.

"It was nirvana," says Elizabeth. "There was such a synergy there. I worked 60 hours a week, but it seemed like it was 20."

The missing piece: an MSW degree

Despite her successful career, Elizabeth felt something was missing in her life: a college education. She had completed a GED and an associate degree, but wanted more. She opted for a bachelor's degree in psychology at Saint Leo University through a hybrid program of on-campus and online courses.

Meanwhile, helping others remained her passion. At work, she loved engaging with individuals and helping them solve problems, as well as advocating on their behalf.

After years of zigging and zagging, Elizabeth decided to take a leap of faith. She quit her job of 12 years and applied to Saint Leo's Master of Social Work Advanced Clinical Practice program.

Social workers needed for aging baby boom population

Once accepted into Saint Leo's online MSW degree program, Elizabeth knew exactly the population she wanted to work with: the elderly. "The older adult population is so gracious and has so much gratitude," Elizabeth says.

It is also a population that is increasing rapidly. By 2020, one in six Americans will be 65 or older, and more than 70,000 geriatric social workers will be needed to address the aging needs of these baby boomers.

Elizabeth says working with older adults in social work is not as "sexy" as other specialty areas, but for her, it has been rewarding. "Most clients I work with are grateful and happy you are with them. They have a great sense of what's important."

In addition, Elizabeth says social work in a long-term care setting offers average salaries that are higher than other areas of the field.

Passion for serving the elderly

Since earning her MSW, Elizabeth has been working full-time at a long-term care facility. She has earned certification as a functional aging specialist, published the book Promise You'll Never Put Me in a Home: A Guide for Older Adults and Their Loved Ones, started a private practice dedicated to helping the elderly population, launched a website ESLifeCoach.com, and is working toward receiving her LSCW credentials. She also is a yoga and spin instructor.

The goal of Elizabeth's work is to help older adults stay healthy longer and support them in ways that Medicare and other areas of the health care system cannot.

"The need to have social workers to pull resources together for older adults to keep them healthier and out of nursing facilities is incredibly critical from a society standpoint," she says.

Elizabeth says that providing older adults access to resources such as fall-risk reduction and special exercise programs, and programs to learn how to manage depression and anxiety has multiple benefits. It helps them stay out of hospitals and nursing homes, and reduces the strain on Medicare dollars and an increasingly overwhelmed health care system.

Answering her call to serve

As Elizabeth moves forward with her geriatric social work career—a path she felt called to—she knows that she is living up to her father's ideals and doing her part for humanity by serving the elderly individuals of her community each day.

"Life is so amazing. It's about not letting fear debilitate you. It's okay to fail," she says.

It's also okay to take a few zig zags along the way.

Other posts you may be interested in reading:

MSW Alumna Story: A Career Helping Homeless Veterans

MSW Alumna Story: A Career In Military Social Work

Navy Vet Turned Social Work Student Is All Heart

Medical Social Work: A Career Helping Families And Patients

Image credits: Lighthunter on Shutterstock.com and courtesy Elizabeth Sukys-Rice