I have always been a “helper.” In college, I worked with children, teens, and victims of domestic violence, learning everything I could about how to help people in need. My passion for helping is what led me to my calling as a hospice social worker.
Today, I meet with individuals approaching the end of life and their families and help coordinate their care during a very vulnerable and difficult time. While I have always been interested in caring for others, hospice has granted me a unique opportunity within the healthcare continuum to address the needs of the whole patient and the needs of their family support network.
When I first meet a patient, I begin by assessing their full situation. I talk with them and their family about the goals for their care and how to attain them. I advise them and together we select the best course of care, navigate legal and financial issues, and help develop end of life plans. It is important that the patient and family are able to make these decisions together, and it is my role as a hospice social worker to facilitate these conversations and to keep all parties fully informed.
Between arranging and paying for private care, trying to coordinate with family and friends who want to help, coordinating transportation and weighing difficult medical decisions — caring for a dying loved one is demanding and exhausting — even more so when trying to maintain a life of your own. Few understand the difficulties of being a caregiver until they find themselves in that position. It is often a stressful and overwhelming job, and I find that families are very grateful for the assistance that hospice provides. For many family members with a loved one in hospice, self-care falls to the bottom of the to-do list as they focus selflessly on the needs and desires of their sick family member. I consider it to be my responsibility to ensure the health of the hospice patient’s support network, and I meet with family caregivers to discuss how they are taking care of themselves — an important question to ask in order to avoid caregiver burnout.
Another aspect of my job is to connect patients and families with the resources that they need. Sometimes this is a simple task, but other times it can be more challenging. One of my patients had been caring for his ninety-year-old mother when he became ill. Unfortunately, the patient’s condition had worsened so much that he needed to be placed in a nursing home. His mother wanted to visit her son, but she was wheelchair bound, unable to drive and had limited financial resources to arrange transportation. Thankfully, after several phone calls with her town’s council on aging, we were able to arrange free transportation from her home to visit her son as often as she needed.
“Helping” in hospice requires a broader definition than in other parts of healthcare. The hospice care model involves an interdisciplinary, team-oriented approach to treatment that includes expert medical care, comprehensive pain management, emotional and spiritual support. Additionally, the family services we provide, including respite care and bereavement counseling, fully round out the comprehensive care only hospice can offer. In an increasingly fragmented and broken healthcare system, hospice is one of the only sectors that demonstrates how a comprehensive care model can work at its best. As healthcare policy changes and reforms come up, we must make sure that new policies reinforce the foundation and values of hospice care to ensure beneficiary access, choice and quality in end of life care.
Hospice professionals are helpers, just like me. Working in hospice is an honor and a privilege, and I am humbled to be a part of people’s lives at such a challenging and unpredictable time. Bringing ease, comfort, and even happiness to patients and families at end of life has allowed me to use my passion for helping people for good. Death is often treated as a very scary thing, however with the help of hospice families can experience quality time together to make a person’s end of life both meaningful and peaceful.
Laci Gentry is a Social Worker with Care Dimensions in Danvers, MA.