The Real Poop
Look, over there. Floating above that hospital bed. Isn't that Mrs. Johnson's mother? Wait, she's not gone yet. Maybe she just went on a trial run to the great beyond, since she's not going to be with us for too much longer. If we hang around for a day or two, we might really get to see dead people. There's just something calming about someone (not us, of course) getting ready to hop aboard with The Boatman... getting ready to cross the old River Styx.
Really, you might think of this old woman's transition, the one from life to death, as the ultimate escape...maybe the best vacation of her life. For her family, not so much. Mrs. Johnson is pretty broken up, but she's happy the hospice nurses have kept her mother comfortable and pain free. This palliative care, as they call it, includes some pretty powerful pain medication. Tania, the hospice social worker, has been a big help, too. She's outside in the sitting room, trying to give the family some privacy. However, they know she's nearby if they get into emotional overload... and when Mrs. Johnson's mom decides to make her final exit stage left.
Before we delve any further into a hospice social worker career, let's clarify that this job is completely different than a hospice worker/health care aide position. A hospice social worker position involves years of social work education and professional experience; whereas a hospice worker/health care aide is generally an entry-level, medically based position.
So… hospice social workers. We have seen that this caring, compassionate professional provides emotional support to families of terminally ill patients. The hospice social worker also focuses on patients' emotional needs, helping to guide the patient through the end-of-life challenges he or she faces. These family and patient discussions can take place at any time - day or night.
In order for the hospice social worker to provide the best possible service to the patient and family, the social worker must first determine their respective needs. She performs a preliminary assessment that helps her identify the patient's and family's strengths and coping abilities. She notes any unusual or especially difficult challenges they face, and recommends resources to help them deal with the turmoil. She may provide counseling if she feels it's appropriate. Finally, she may mediate conflicts between the family and caregivers, or even between family members themselves.
However, our hospice social worker also performs several more mundane functions. She may work with the family to coordinate financial resources so the patient can continue to receive hospice care. She may help the family navigate the endless paperwork that seems to accompany health care services. In her spare time(!), the hospice social worker may serve as an advocate for hospice care for everyone, regardless of their (or their family's) ability to pay.
Note that the hospice social worker does not function as Superwoman. She considers herself one part of an interdisciplinary care team, consisting of the patient's physician, nurse(s), chaplain, rabbi, or priest and, of course, family members. In some cases, volunteers may also be part of the care team. A volunteer might stay with the patient much of the time, informing trained medical personnel if something of concern arises.
Now that we know what a hospice social worker does, the next logical question is: who does she work for? Although hospice organizational structures vary, you'll probably find that some hospice facilities are registered non-profits. A non-profit structure will definitely open the door to community fundraising events. A hospital may also operate its own hospice facility. Unless you operate the hospice facility as your own business, you'll likely function as an employee with the benefits that accrue to other company staffers.
You've probably realized that a hospice social worker has wide-ranging responsibilities. You might also wonder if your personality traits make you a good fit for this career. First, you've got to have compassion and patience. You will be working with patients and families who may be in fragile emotional states. Otherwise rational adults may refuse to acknowledge a simple point due to emotional duress. You must be patient, tolerant, and willing to put your irritation aside to help them work through it.
You must also have a really good sense of organization. You will probably be working with multiple patients and families; this means you can't afford to get your paperwork and appointments mixed up. You must also be comfortable working with different types of professionals on the interdisciplinary care team.
Finally, you must be able to handle unexpected circumstances without batting an eye. Patients don't always take a turn for the worse between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Doctors may call you when they finish their surgeries and patient rounds, whether it's 6 a.m. or 4 p.m. They might not call you at all, which might mean you have to chase them down on the golf course (by telephone, of course).
You will, of course, have numerous ups and downs in this career. Although some people might find working with terminally ill patients and their families depressing, you might consider it a privilege to help them through this life-changing event. You may receive emotional and spiritual benefits you never even considered. However, the downside is that most of your patients will die at some point, and you must be prepared to handle that. In addition, you may find yourself working with some younger hospice patients, including children. This may prove especially unsettling, but could also provide you with examples of the true meaning of courage and optimism.
Finally, let's say you enjoy working with patients or clients, although you don't think you're suited for a hospice social worker career. You might consider a licensed clinical social worker career, which also requires a Master's Degree in Social Work, but may provide more wide-ranging professional opportunities. A licensed psychologist, child psychologist, or rehabilitation counselor career may interest you as well.