The Role and Responsibilities of a Hospice Social Worker

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An elderly couple walk through a park.

Hospice care is a set of interdisciplinary services that aim to make the management of illness and pain at the end of life easier. The goal of hospice care is to provide compassionate support to clients, as well as their families and loved ones.

In 2017, there were 1.49 million beneficiaries of Medicare enrolled in hospice care, according to the 2019 annual report from National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. However, of all Medicare beneficiaries who died in 2017, fewer than half received hospice care at the end of their lives. One of the NHPCO’s goals is to ensure that anyone who can benefit from this type of care has access to it.

“We must do better to ensure that all those who will benefit from hospice care – or palliative care earlier in the course of a serious illness – have access to this compassionate, high-quality care,” NHPCO President and CEO, Edo Banach, said in a press release.

Hospice can be beneficial to clients as well as their families dealing with the challenges ― including emotional, spiritual, physical, financial, legal, or other types of obstacles ― that inevitably come with the end of life.

Hospice social workers assist clients and loved ones with these types of challenges and more during these difficult times.

Hospice and palliative care: What’s the difference?

The terms “hospice” and “palliative care” are often used together, but aren’t interchangeable. While they’re closely related, there are some important differences between the two.

Palliative care attempts to prevent or relieve pain and other symptoms associated with a serious medical condition, typically a terminal or chronic illness. These symptoms may be physical, psychosocial, or spiritual, the National Association of Social Workers explained. Palliative care can sometimes be followed by hospice care, but this isn’t always the case.

Hospice is a type of palliative care that focuses on providing support and comfort at the end of a person’s life, which is typically defined as having a life expectancy of six or fewer months. A client may begin receiving hospice care after or in tandem with palliative care, but it’s not required that a person go through palliative care to receive hospice care.

There are many overlaps between these two types of care. They both offer physical, spiritual, and emotional support, and seek to improve the client’s quality of life. Social workers may also offer bereavement services for families of a client; this is nearly always included in hospice and is often included in palliative care.

What hospice and palliative care social workers do

Though there are important differences between hospice and palliative care, social workers involved in both have many of the same job responsibilities.

Counseling

Social workers provide counseling services for their clients and families of clients. In a hospice or palliative care setting, these may include working through how individuals view the dying process, as well as grief counseling.

The end of life can be difficult for many people and families, especially if individuals have varying views on death and dying. Hospice social workers may help with conflict mediation between family members.

Social workers may also assist families in defining their personal goals for palliative or hospice care, which can help them make decisions during this difficult time.

Education

Social workers may host educational workshops for their communities to give them information and resources about approaching hospice or palliative care.

In addition to educational workshops, which may be delivered to a group of unrelated individuals, social workers involved in hospice care often educate their clients and families about coping strategies and techniques to manage pain and other symptoms of illness.

Assistance with paperwork

It’s important that clients’ end-of-life wishes are met. Hospice social workers often help review and document these wishes, including assisting with do not resuscitate (DNR) orders and advanced directives.

Social workers may also help clients navigate their medical or veterans benefits, or provide advice on financial or legal matters, according to Today’s Geriatric Medicine. Assisting with Medicaid/Medicare paperwork is also common for hospice social workers.

Assess challenges and risks for clients

Social workers need to be observant about their clients’ environments. This is especially important in hospice or palliative care settings, where individuals typically don’t have much control over their surroundings.

Social workers should be able to identify various challenges that their clients or clients’ loved ones may face, such as:

  • Potentially abusive or neglectful situations
  • Emotional needs of the client or members of their support system
  • Safety risks in their environment

Once they identify a problem or obstacle, the social worker should mitigate any risks and direct the client or related individuals to the appropriate resources.

Connecting clients with services

Clients in palliative or hospice care may need additional services that social workers aren’t able to provide on their own. For these situations, social workers seek out and research programs or community resources that can assist their clients with various needs, such as Meals on Wheels, Life Alert, spiritual or religious leaders, support groups, or financial resources.

An elderly woman smiles while seated outside.

What it’s like to be a hospice social worker

Professionals involved in hospice and palliative care face challenging situations daily. They’re involved with clients and their families at particularly difficult times in clients’ lives. Because of this, it’s important to practice self-care, and for social workers in this field to consider how they view death. Working on their own mental health is an important component of being as helpful as possible to clients and families.

Social workers involved in hospice or palliative care typically work with an interdisciplinary team of professionals who all serve to support clients who are at the end of life, or working through illness-related pain. For many professionals, collaborating with a complementary team that includes nurses, hospice volunteers, physicians, and more is rewarding and helpful in providing the best care possible. That said, they may not have colleagues in the same field, or who have similar education or experience, in their care team.

Hospice social workers may make anywhere from $17,100 to $81,300 depending on their certifications, location, employer, and more. The median salary for hospice workers with a Master of Social Work is $49,500, according to an NASW survey.

Most social workers work full time, and some will also provide services on weekends, evenings, and holidays, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Typically, social workers may be on call so they can respond promptly if there’s an emergency.

How to become a hospice or palliative care social worker

Working as a hospice or palliative care social worker is a challenging yet rewarding career. To pursue this path, perspective workers should complete a master’s degree program focusing on social work. Learn about Regis College’s online MSW program and find out if this career path is right for you.

 

Recommended reading:

Important Social Worker Skills

How the MSW Prepares you for Clinical Social Work

 

Sources:

NHPCO Facts and Figures 2018 Edition – National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization

Social Workers in Hospice and Palliative Care: Occupational profile – National Association of Social Workers

Social Workers: Occupational Outlook Handbook – Bureau of Labor Statistics

Long Term Care: The Role of Social Workers in End-of-Life Care – Today’s Geriatric Medicine

NHPCO Releases Updated Edition of Hospice Facts and Figures Report – Globe Newswire