The end of a person’s life is a unique experience that has a great impact on the person, his or her family, and their family legacy. Social workers bring to the team particular skills in working with families from varying cultures and socio-economic status. Their training helps them relate to people within a social and cultural context. The social worker can also identify resources, beyond the health care system, which may help the family cope with situations involving life-limiting illness, dying, grief and bereavement.

As part of the hospice or palliative care team (see Palliative Service vs Hospice Service), the social worker can help fill in gaps in the system by providing guidance to patients and families in the following ways:

  • Ensure that the treatment plan is understood and the patient’s needs and wishes are conveyed
  • Coordinate the care of patients by communicating with all parties involved, including physicians, nurses, clergy, and the patient’s family
  • Manage stress; mental, emotional, financial and family
  • Navigate the difficult process of end-of-life planning
  • Overcome crisis situations
  • Provide counseling and psychotherapy
  • Identify local resources for additional support and guidance

social worker with family membersOne of the roles of a hospice social worker is to advocate for the patient’s wishes. Many people are not educated about end-of-life issues, including decisions about CPR (resuscitation) and DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) orders. For example, patients may be unaware of their rights to elect against treatment that may prolong a painful dying process. With compassion and sensitivity, the hospice social worker can provide information about patients’ rights and options.

Social workers are trained to help stabilize a difficult situation with an an open-minded approach that includes:

  • Calmness
  • Empathy
  • Experience
  • Advocacy
  • Problem-solving skills

social worker talking to family of patientFor in-home care, a social worker will go to the patient’s home to help the patient and family set up a system for effective home care while helping to organize the outside medical, psychological, and social care they need. For example, they may help the patient and family complete insurance paperwork to receive additional medical care or equipment, and establish communication between the patient and service providers.

In a palliative or hospice care setting, the mission of the social worker is to help patients and their families to navigate this incredibly difficult set of circumstances with dignity and a helping hand. Grief support services are offered to families of patients who have died under hospice care.