As a hospice social worker, “Why do we need a social worker?” is a question I hear almost daily. It’s a very valid question. Some people ask because they want to know what I can offer them. However, most of the time I am asked this question because the family believes social workers are only used when someone is being mistreated. This misconception is sometimes furthered by television and movies, where social workers are portrayed as foster care and adoption case workers, or as domestic violence advocates who investigate abuse and mistreatment. The truth is that social workers do work in those positions (and deserve a hearty thanks), as well as hundreds of others, including hospice.
The scope of what a social worker does is so much more than what often is shown on the latest television special, and certainly is more than I can describe in a short article. Because of this portrayal, people often are confused and conflicted about the role of a hospice social worker in their cases. Perhaps, with more information about what a hospice social worker does, this mindset can change from “Why do I need a social worker?” to “Thank goodness you are here.”
A hospice social worker’s main roles are supporter and advocate. These roles can look very different depending on each family’s unique needs. An average day for me can include helping a family set up caregivers in the home, listening to a family as they laugh and cry about a favorite memory, providing encouragement for a patient as his or her body slowly changes, advocating for a patient who is no longer able to advocate for himself or herself, helping a patient complete a form designating who may make decisions on his or her behalf, supporting a family that cannot make sense of such a loss, providing a calm and reassuring presence, visiting with some of the dearest people I’ve ever had the opportunity to meet, assisting with end-of-life decision making, bringing social support and companionship to a house- or facility-bound individual, providing reassurance to a discouraged caregiver, educating families and the community on end-of-life symptoms and hospice protocol, and respectfully and reverently being present as a person takes their last breath and peacefully passes from this world. Social workers also often continue to support families after a loss, assisting them as they adjust to a life without a beloved member. In addition, social workers often lead support groups for those taking care of dying individuals or for individuals after a loss.
Hospice social workers take this supportive role very seriously, and so does Medicare. Medicare requires that hospice social work services be available to every hospice patient, and be provided by a professionally prepared social worker. This allows patients and their families to receive a range of supportive services that can assist them in making a very difficult situation easier to bear. At Blount Memorial, all hospice social workers have a master’s degree from an accredited school of social work.
Unlike television often portrays, hospice social workers are not there to tell a family what they are doing wrong, but they are there to encourage them in the things they are doing well. A hospice social worker isn’t there to take anything from a family, but is there to assist them in finding a strength they didn’t know they had.
Emily Armstrong Brooks is a licensed master social worker for Blount Memorial Hospice and Palliative Care.