Hospice social workers: comforters and counselors during life's closing chapter

Family conversations about end-of-life care can be emotional and confusing. Even when a loved one is facing a life-limiting illness, many of us delay these difficult conversations until it's too late. Hospice social worker are experts at making these conversations easier because they don't focus on dying, but on helping families make the most of their time together.


Social workers are problem solvers, counselors and educators. Together with the hospice care team, they help families find resources to live as fully as possible despite a life-limiting illness.


The first step for hospice social workers is understanding a patient's goals and values. Social workers work hand-in-hand with family members, healthcare providers and the hospice team to create a personalized plan of care to meet those goals. They also help families understand the medical system and bring clarity to end-of-life planning.


Patients get help accessing Medicare benefits, veterans benefits, chaplain services and other resources. Social workers also help with advance care planning to document a patient's wishes for medical care, if they aren't able to speak for themselves at a later time.


Grief counseling, including pre-bereavement counseling, is a fundamental part of reducing anxiety in patients and their families. “Grief takes many forms, so we’re here to walk patients and families through the process and let them share their feelings,” said Tanya Gustafson, a hospice social worker in Cleveland, Ohio.


“I recently helped a young woman in her mid-twenties who was not accepting her diagnosis,” Tanya said. “We talked and uncovered her grief about losing her independence and her future dreams. We helped her find new dreams.”  


Bereavement care can include listening quietly to a patient's concerns or helping them work through family problems. Care doesn’t end with a patient’s passing. Grief support is offered to families for 13 months after the passing of a loved one.


Services to improve emotional and social well being have been a crucial part of end-of-life care since the founding of the first modern hospice. A Social Work Policy Institute survey showed that hospice social workers maintain an average caseload of 24.2 patients.


"My work isn't easy, but it comes with great rewards," said Rebecca Baker, "Hospice inspires me because it's an honor to help people at such an intimate and sacred time in their lives."

Qualifications for Compassus social workers


  • Effective communication and interpersonal skills
  • High sense of integrity
  • Understanding and acceptance of hospice philosophy
  • Ability to travel to patient homes and nursing facilities in the community
  • Knowledge of Microsoft Office programs
  • A valid driver’s license and auto liability insurance


Education, Experience, and Certifications


Has a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree from a school of social work accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (preferred)


or


Has a Bachelor’s Degree in social work from an institution accredited by the Council on Social Work Education; or a baccalaureate degree in psychology, sociology, or other field related to social work; and has 1 year of social work experience in a healthcare setting and is supervised by an MSW


or


Has a Bachelor’s Degree from a school of social work accredited by the Council on Social Work Education, is employed by Compassus before December 2, 2008, and is not required to be supervised by an MSW


Some states also require their own state-specific certifications.