woman holds an older man's hand

Live with Purpose - March 30, 2021

Hospice Social Workers Provide Essential Care

By Amanda Ranowsky

2020 shined a light on essential workers. We recognized doctors and nurses, grocery store workers and delivery people, firefighters and police officers for the crucial services they provide. For them, they were doing what they’ve always been doing. For us, we found out just how vital they are to us all as the pandemic turned our lives upside down.

There is one group of professionals you might not have heard much about this past year, yet they have been there for us as much as other essential workers — social workers.

March is Social Work Month, so now is a great time to turn the spotlight to them. In fact, the National Association of Social Workers selected “Social Workers Are Essential” as the theme for the month-long recognition.

Social Workers Are Essential, Too

At Goodwin House, our social workers make a profound impact on the lives of residents, Goodwin House at Home members and clients of our home and community-based services. During Social Work Month last year, we shared an article about how social workers impact the Goodwin House community.

This year, I spoke with two Goodwin House social workers to learn how they provide their essential services in a unique setting: hospice. We also discussed how the pandemic has affected their work.

What is Hospice?

Americans’ dislike of talking about, thinking of or generally recognizing death could be keeping many from one of the greatest gifts our healthcare system has to offer: hospice care.

Hospice is a philosophy of care that seeks to ensure patients receive compassionate care and are comfortable through their final stage of life. Hospice teams collaborate to ensure patients and their loved ones have the support they need, and social workers are critical members of these teams.

I spoke with Marcia Baumgartner, MSW, and Anne Van Heyste, MSW, LCSW, to learn how they apply their skills in social work to a hospice setting. They work for Goodwin House Hospice, which serves both residents of Goodwin House and adults ages 18+ in the Northern Virginia area.

Goodwin House Hospice cares for patients in a variety of settings—their own homes, senior living communities such as Goodwin House Alexandria or Goodwin House Bailey’s Crossroads and other healthcare settings. For patients needing more extensive healthcare services, Goodwin House has an agreement with an in-patient center.

What Does a Hospice Social Worker Do?

The hospice social worker’s role begins at the very start of a new client’s journey with hospice. As part of an interdisciplinary team that provides care and support for the client, the social worker is there for a range of services.

Marcia is one of several social workers serving Goodwin House Hospice. Once someone is admitted to hospice, she conducts a psychosocial assessment of both the client and their loved ones. From this assessment, Marcia determines what kind of support they need with end-of-life planning, advocates for the client’s needs and assists in managing the emotional, familial and financial stresses that often arise when someone is facing terminal illness. On any given day, she might provide counseling to the client or their loved ones, recommend services or help organize funeral logistics.

The pandemic changed Marcia’s day-to-day routine. Accustomed to meeting with people in person for most of her work, Marcia suddenly had to rely on phone calls.

“I used to be able to go spend time with the patients in person,” she said. “And after the visit, I would send an email or phone the family member and give them an update. I’d share how I enjoyed a nice visit with their loved one, maybe we listened to music, or maybe I held their hand. Now, I can’t have that same contact with the patient, especially those patients who are in healthcare settings versus private homes. I’m a lot more dependent on calling the family members and asking them to tell me how the patient is doing.”

The Role of the Bereavement Counselor

Hospice programs provide bereavement services for clients’ loved ones for up to 13 months after the loss. Anne serves Goodwin House Hospice as the bereavement counselor, a specific role within social work. In her role, Anne runs a grief support group (via Zoom, at the moment), provides individual grief counseling, makes supportive phone calls and sends regular mailings that offer a chance to check in and provide helpful information and resources to those who are still coping with loss.

As we have heard and seen in the news, or perhaps experienced for ourselves, the nature of grieving has been strongly affected by the pandemic. “Some people have adapted really well,” said Anne. “They are doing memorial services over Zoom, and have more people there than might otherwise have been able to attend. They’ve embraced it.”

As is the case any time we are dealing with complex and deeply personal feelings involved with death and loss, what works for some does not work for all.

“Some people are experiencing more complicated grief,” Anne shared. “One reason for this is that they’re not able to have funerals and don’t have the normal support of gathering together. Their grief may also be protracted as they postpone memorial services for their loved one. They might feel like they’re waiting and can’t move on. And if they do a big funeral later, they will be reliving some of their grief.”

The Makings of a Social Worker

If you know a social worker or have had the pleasure of working with one, you might describe them as empathic, giving and kind. From my conversations with Anne and Marcia, I would add that they are also grounded, nurturing and open. For both of them, they felt called to provide social work in a hospice setting.

Marcia’s role as a social worker is a second career. She spent the first part of her working life in the federal government, but years of volunteering as a Stephen Minister through her church revealed her love of helping people through emotional issues and difficult situations. When she retired from the federal government at age 50, she decided to pursue her passions through a career in social work.

“I felt social work gave me access to different populations,” she said, “and through Stephen Ministry, I knew that working with older adults is where my first love is. I love sitting down with someone to hear their life story and learn about them.” She spent her first years in social work in the Goodwin House Alexandria Health Care Center, which houses residents who need nursing care.

When the opportunity to join the Goodwin House Hospice team arose, she decided to take it. “Hospice had always interested me,” she explained. “I had observed hospice, and experienced hospice through some of my friends, and I thought what a beautiful way to support someone and support their family in dying and death.”

Working in hospice care takes being comfortable with death and the concept of dying, which many might find too challenging. For Marcia, the benefit that she can offer outweighs the struggle. “It’s rewarding to be a comfort to people as they go through that grief process,” she said.

Anne worked as a hospice social worker for several years before working specifically in bereavement counseling. “I started in bereavement while covering for a colleague who was on maternity leave, and I loved it.”

What Anne loved so much about offering bereavement services was being the person who people could come to and be heard without judgment. “I give people a place where they can share, where they don’t have to hold back. What I like is that I put people at ease so that they feel comfortable in sharing, because sharing makes everything so much lighter. I like providing the space for them to feel accepted, nurtured and to start feeling better.”

Take Advantage of Hospice

Hospice might seem a well-kept secret, known only to those who have experienced it through the death of a loved one. Those in the know recognize the incredibly beneficial impact it had on them and their loved one.

Anne and Marcia hope that more people will come to have greater understanding and appreciation of hospice care so that it can be better utilized. “People have the misconception that hospice makes death happen faster,” said Marcia. “That’s not true at all. It’s there so someone doesn’t have pain or discomfort. It’s making them and their family members comfortable and helping them prepare.”

“Some people think that hospice is only for the last week of life,” said Anne. “That’s not what it is. It’s when a doctor certifies a patient has a life expectancy of six months or less. This is an educated estimate. People can live longer than that, and some people do graduate out of hospice. People should enter hospice sooner, if they can, and not wait so long.”

Gratitude for Social Workers

Social workers like Anne and Marcia play an important role in ensuring the health, safety and care of residents, members and patients at Goodwin House and in our wider community. Outside of Goodwin House and the field of senior living and health care services, there are social workers caring for children and families, patients and healthcare workers, those battling mental illness or substance abuse, and so much more. Join us in thanking these social workers for the essential services they provide to us and our communities!

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As Marketing & Communications Specialist, Amanda Ranowsky partners with colleagues throughout Goodwin House Incorporated to tell our stories and raise brand awareness. From printed collateral to digital marketing, Amanda covers many bases. Before joining GHI, Amanda worked for a small, family-owned business where she gained experience in content marketing. Amanda’s creative expression extends beyond the office. She is an active member of community theater and chorus groups.

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