Social workers play a vital role in hospice care, providing empathy, support, and advocacy for patients with terminal illnesses. With the hospice team approach, the wide spectrum of patients’ needs are met through professionals who understand end-of-life care. Nurses, aides, spiritual care coordinators, and others join social workers to offer a holistic patient-centered plan.

“I wish people knew that social workers can assist them in many areas during their journey on hospice. They don’t have to wait until a crisis comes their way,” says Kim Wilson, social worker with Heart to Heart Hospice in Southwest Indiana. “Some ways social workers can assist includes help with funeral planning, applying for grants through the foundation, setting up meals, caregivers, and respite stay. Social workers can help them create a plan to avoid these stresses or at least have the tools set aside to get through it.”

Two days rarely look alike, and social workers carry out the caregivers’ and patients’ goals for each visit. One day may look like listening to families who are dealing with grief or depression, while other days it may be providing conflict mediation, still others may include helping families navigate planning for end-of-life care. 

They also help patients understand their treatment plan and encourage them to be vocal about their needs; manage the stresses of debilitating physical illnesses, including emotional, familial, and financial; overcome crisis situations; connect to other support services and resources; and much more. Beyond formal education and licensure, professionals who go into social work are often wired for compassion, stress tolerance, relationship-building, and curiosity that leads to problem-solving.

The Roles of Social Workers in Hospice

Social workers meet a variety of needs for patients and caregivers, including:

Emotional support: Many times, families need a listening ear as they process a loved one’s terminal diagnosis. Patients and loved ones need to talk about their grief, fear, and sadness. Social workers are trained to listen with sensitivity and understanding in regards to unique family dynamics, demographics, cultures, and more. They also help families understand some of the medical information given by doctors or nurses during a less stressful block of time. Additionally, they offer coping techniques and grief resources unique to children and spousal or parental caregivers. Mediating family conflicts also comes under their care.

Education and coordination: Families often don’t know where to turn, and social workers help connect them to resources outside of hospice-covered benefits. This includes support groups (like caregivers for loved ones with Alzheimer’s), Veterans programs, Meals on Wheels, and spiritual support. Within hospice, social workers help families understand the role of each member of the hospice team. They also can assist with Medicare or insurance paperwork.

Reassurance for caregivers: Social workers serve both patients and caregivers, but often caregivers need to talk through their choices. Social workers are experienced in walking through hospice with other families and provide needed encouragement to help caregivers find peace and strength to persevere. 

Advanced directives and end-of-life planning: Nearly 50% of patients are enrolled in hospice for 18 days or less, which provides little time to talk about what a “good death” looks like. Comfort measures, pain management, and medical care is overseen by nurses, but there are many other important facets to end-of-life care. 

Social workers help introduce the conversation about advanced directives, such as determining Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) orders and appointing a healthcare agent or proxy. Leading the patient and family in these difficult conversations solidifies the patient’s wishes, which is then documented. Social workers also serve as advocates to keep the patient’s end-of-life preferences in front of other hospice team members.

Bereavement and funeral support: Grief counseling, including pre-bereavement, is often a core component of a hospice social worker’s job. While death is a part of everyone’s reality, patients and families need to process their emotions safely. Further, social workers offer guidance with funeral planning, providing steps and resources. Bereavement support is available up to 13 months after the death of the hospice patient. 

Social Worker Appreciation & Self-Care Tips

March serves as National Social Work Month, and Heart to Heart Hospice wants to thank our hardworking, compassionate social workers! The 2023 theme is “Social Work Breaks Barriers,” and our social workers bridge the gap for hospice patients to overcome hurdles so their final weeks can be peaceful. In addition to helping so many families, social workers find their jobs rewarding and fulfilling. 

“In hospice care, every day is a refreshing and renewed sense of purpose and meaning in life. I’ve viewed it that way since day one, and I believe my role as a social worker is a calling by God. I am so blessed and thankful for the work that we get to do every day,” shares Adam Hollenbacher, a social worker with Heart to Heart Hospice of Southwest Indiana. “Heart to Heart Hospice is an incredible organization that does an amazing job of focusing on the physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing of patients and their loved ones. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else in life!”

As a reminder, social workers need self-care, too. Here are a few good practices:

  • Remember to “clock out” of the day’s work to decompress. 
  • Take care of your own health needs, including nutrition, hydration, and exercise. 
  • Find support with co-workers, friends, and a support group or counselor if needed.
  • Keep up with hobbies that you enjoy.
  • Engage with a spiritual or like-minded community.

If you need a hospice company that provides compassion, dignity, and respect, call Heart to Heart Hospice today. View our service areas in Indiana, Michigan,and Texas.