In celebration ofNational Social Work Month, I reflect upon what it means to be a social worker in hospice and why I chose this job. Hopefully, these thoughts and experiences will help you, my fellow social workers, articulate the important details of your job to others.
When people ask me what I do as a hospice social worker, my canned answer is usually, “I do everything that no one else wants to do.”
After nearly eleven years of practice and hearing literally hundreds of people respond to my career focus with the phrase, “Oh! You are a special person. I could never do that job,” I realized there is more truth to my statement than I had once thought.
I obtained my master’s degree in social work with the precise goal of working in hospice. As a sophomore in college, I observed my grandmother’s hospice social worker with my family. After that experience, I changed my major, continued on for my master’s and have not looked back since.
My passion is with this field, and I am honored to do the work I do each day. Trying to give a serious answer to the question of what a social worker does in hospice is a little more difficult. As we celebrate National Social Work Month, I want to highlight the four main tasks social workers perform each day. This makes explaining the role a little easier.
The first task is to EVALUATE. Social workers are essential in assessing and evaluating the situations our patients find themselves in from a problem-solving perspective. We are constantly determining needs, attributes, perception, and support systems in the ever-changing landscape of a terminal illness. This evaluation leads to a better understanding that assists with creating person-centered plans that benefit our patients and their families.
Our second task is to EDUCATE. Patients’ families may have experienced the death of a loved one before, but they have never experienced the loss of the particular person we are assisting. One of the scariest things about the dying process can be fear of the unknown. Social workers seek to prepare our patients and families with knowledge of what they can generally expect during the process. We empower our patients by teaching them about resources available to them in order to make achieving their goals for care easier. Most importantly, we teach people to accept their emotions without guilt by normalizing their specific feelings about the situation.
Thirdly, social workers ADVOCATE for individuals to help them articulate their final needs, desires, and fears. We work hard to remember and remind others that our patients are the best experts on themselves, despite our team’s vast medical knowledge and experience. At times, we advocate for our patient’s final wishes when they are unable to speak for themselves due to their illness or other circumstances. These patients deserve to have a voice and often breathe a sigh of relief as the power of decision-making shifts back into their corner upon accessing their hospice benefit.
Lastly, and in my opinion the most humbling, is that social workersPARTICIPATE in this sacred journey with our patients and their families. We are often found discussing the most difficult and intimate of topics with people when no one else wants to. Social workers provide support at the bedside during the dying process. We seek not to guide the journey or determine the route but instead to join our patients as they travel the final path of their choice. This is a gift to every person in this field and something I am grateful for every day.
So, my fellow social workers, as we celebrate Social Work Month this March, please know how much you matter and what a distinct service you offer to those you work with as you bring them comfort and dignity during their final days on earth. I celebrate you and am honored to work alongside you in this field.
Sherri Bickley, Licensed Master Social Worker and Emotional Support Services Consultant for Crossroads Hospice.