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The gift of peace: Five things you don’t know about hospice social workers

I am a medical social worker with HopeHealth, and I care for hospice patients in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other residential settings.

About three quarters of my patients have some type of dementia, so I’m often coordinating care directly through families.

Social workers are a vital part of the hospice care team. To celebrate National Social Worker Month, it is my pleasure to share five things you may not know about us—but should!

Any question, fear or concern you have is valid and worthy of compassionate attention.

1. We help you through “normal” problems and challenges.

If you or a loved one is on hospice, think of hospice social workers as your helping hands. Our job is to calm, comfort and connect you to available resources. We’re there for you every step of the way, and our ultimate goal is help our patients achieve a peaceful passing.

Anticipating the loss of a loved one raises many issues for a family, but you don’t have to go through it alone. The social work team will assist with practical needs, like funeral planning and advance directives. We also offer counseling and emotional support.

It’s important to know that if a hospice social worker reaches out to you, it doesn’t mean something is wrong. We offer our services to every patient and family on hospice.

Any question, fear or concern you have is valid and worthy of compassionate attention. Receiving care from a social worker is part of the hospice benefit and can be a great source of support through a difficult time.

No matter the situation or need, it is you who guides the conversation with a social worker. You let us know how we can help.

2. We’re great at explaining and listening.

The doctors and nurses on your hospice team are highly trained and expert communicators. Sometimes, though, families under stress need medical information explained more than once, even several times.

If you feel overwhelmed, ask your hospice social worker to break it down.

Social workers approach work from a perspective of empathy and advocacy. We’re sensitive to each person’s uniqueness and know that how you communicate and process information is a product of your personality, upbringing and family system.

Let me share an example of a situation I see regularly.

In the final weeks and days of life for someone with terminal illness, the adult body goes through several natural changes. Most notably, people tend to eat less and sleep more.

These changes are normal, but watching it happen can be upsetting. “Why isn’t mom awake? I want to talk to her!”

Some family members might express their anxiety by questioning the treatment plan. Others might withdraw from conversation.

As social workers, we sense this distress and can do different things to help. Some folks just need a reminder of what is happening medically. Others might benefit from a counseling session.

No matter the situation or need, it is you who guides the conversation with a social worker. You let us know how we can help.

3. We’re specially trained for hospice care.

Nearly all of HopeHealth’s hospice social workers are Licensed Independent Clinical Social Workers (LICSW). This is the highest designation of licensure and means we are qualified to provide clinical and non-clinical services without supervision.

To earn this designation in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, we must:

  • Have a master’s or doctoral degree in social work
  • Hold a current license as a Licensed Certified Social worker (LCSW)
  • Have completed an additional two years of relevant experience and received clinical supervision
  • Pass a national exam

We also take continuing education courses to renew our license every two years.

Now, what does all this extra training and expertise mean for our patients? It means we have advanced knowledge and specialized skills, so we can provide even better care for you.

A man in his 90s, who loved karaoke, wanted to take the stage one last time. We made it happen and the smile on his face is something I’ll never forget.

4. We record love letters and family histories.

Hospice social workers help patients document their end-of-life wishes via advance directives, funeral planning, personal wills and other matters.

Talking about these issues can be sad, but we guide the discussions skillfully and make them as easy as possible.

Planning ahead is a good idea for a few reasons. First, it provides peace of mind to both you and your family. No one will have to wonder what you want, or make heavy decisions while actively grieving a loss.

Second, your cognition or energy level may diminish as the illness progresses. Squaring away your business matters as soon as possible allows you to focus on quality time.

Finally, thinking ahead gives you time to leave a legacy. At patients’ request, I can use my laptop to record information they wish to pass along. People have asked me to capture the story of how they met their spouse, draft heartfelt letters to children and grandchildren, and even help write their obituaries.

These histories and love letters are profound final gifts, and it is my honor to help create them.

5. We make end-of-life wishes come true.

There are happy moments in hospice care. On occasion, my colleagues and I have the opportunity to help families arrange special events or outings.

There are some limits—health status and resources play a role—but we do whatever we can. Here are some requests we made happen:

  • A man in his 90s, who loved karaoke, wanted to take the stage one last time. We made it happen, and the smile on his face is something I’ll never forget.
  • A woman in her 40s was a huge fan of the hip-hip group Salt-N-Pepa. We arranged for a wheelchair van to transport her and sisters to see the group’s concert at Twin River Casino.
  • One gentleman had been a bowling-pin setter in his early days and wanted to visit a bowling alley. We helped him get there, and although it might seem like a small request, it meant so much.
  • Another patient dreamed of flying in a helicopter, so we did our part to make his spectacular wish soar. See our Facebook post about this.

In addition, sometimes our patients have loved ones who are incarcerated, so we work with officials to arrange allowable furlough visits.

You can see that hospice social workers wear many hats, and we take to heart all of our responsibilities. Trust us to help your family get through a difficult time with dignity and respect. It’s our honor to help you.


Questions about receiving care from a social worker? Ask us at (844) 671-HOPE or Information@HopeHealthCo.org.

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