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Hospice social work matters

Hospice social workers matter

By Terre Mirsch

At the heart of hospice care is the hospice interdisciplinary team. Dame Cicely Saunders, founder of the modern hospice movement, recognized that no one person could meet the physical, emotional, social, and spiritual needs of patients and families facing life-limiting illness and that a team of professionals and volunteers would be necessary. The team, consisting of physicians, nurses, social workers, chaplains, hospice aides, complementary and other allied therapists, and volunteers, works together towards common goals that are established with the patient and the family.

Too often, patients and their families fail to understand the role of each interdisciplinary team member, stating “We don’t need their help right now. We’re doing OK” while focusing on the physical or tangible needs of their loved one. The role of the social worker, in particular, is often misunderstood and undervalued. Perhaps, this is because we don’t know what we need or what type of support might be helpful during this difficult time.

So, what exactly does the hospice social worker do? And how can they help you and your family?

Certainly hospice social workers can assist with the myriad of paperwork and practical matters that need attending to, including:

  • help in understanding and completing advance directives,
  • navigating through health insurance claims and understanding benefits,
  • referrals for other community resources or assistance that may be available,
  • assisting with financial concerns that may accompany chronic illness or disability,
  • exploring other care options when necessary, and
  • discussing options for funeral arrangements and other post-death notifications.

I am also reminded of their incredible work during extraordinary times. They ensured the safety, security, and alternate housing for many of our patients and families as Hurricane Irene approached the New Jersey shore last summer; they located distant family members and assisted a patient to relocate six hours away in order to be close to long-lost family during the last weeks of life; and they inspired others to join them in providing food, clothing, and the house cleaning necessary to enable a patient with no resources to stay in his home.

But perhaps your loved one has their ‘affairs in order’ and you have the necessary resources to promote care and comfort in the home.  What then can the social worker do to help?

Hospice social workers provide the support necessary to build confidence and resilience during this difficult time. By helping you to recognize your own strengths, they promote self-efficacy and coping. They can help you to prepare for difficult – or meaningful- conversations with your loved one, other family members, or with your children. They also provide a listening ear, validating and understanding your experience during caregiving and during times of loss.

March is National Social Work Month, providing an opportunity for each of us to salute the work of these unsung heroes who restore hope and solve problems within our communities.  The national theme, “Social Work Matters”, aptly describes the nature of the hospice social work role and the difference they make in the lives of the patients and families who face advancing illness and in bereavement. They, and their work, matter.

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