By listening to the needs and wishes of patients and families, hospice social workers give the dying a voice. These empathetic and skillful coordinators organize personalized care plans and support families facing challenges intrinsic to the end-of-life journey.
What Does a Hospice Social Worker Do?
To appreciate the invaluable work of hospice social workers, it’s important to understand the nature of hospice care and its goals. Hospice care is an approach to end-of-life care that focuses on improving quality of life. It strives to give people care that helps them live as comfortably and fully as possible.
Whether helping patients and families in assisted living communities, private residences, hospice centers or nursing homes, hospice social workers play a special role in supporting patients and families through the end-of-life process.
Helping Patients and Families Meet Their Goals
Hospice social workers help patients and families develop personalized care plans that outline the patient’s needs along with the services and interventions that will be used to address them.
To ensure these plans reflect the patient’s and family’s goals, wishes and cultural needs, hospice social workers take time to listen to patient and family stories and concerns. They also ask questions to better understand what matters to the patient and family. This prepares hospice social workers to discuss options for therapies and services that take patient and family preferences and values into account.
As an example, a person might express a desire to die at home. In such a case, a hospice social worker will coordinate a plan that might involve arranging for services such as companion care, which gives individuals opportunities to socialize and helps them out with household chores, or personal care, which provides assistance with daily needs such as eating or bathing.
Another example might involve a person who has expressed a desire to avoid medication for anxiety or pain. In such a case, a hospice social worker will help the patient explore alternative relief methods.
Supporting Families and Patients
The end-of-life journey evokes many emotions and presents numerous challenges — mental, physical, and practical. First, patients and their families must reconcile with the emotional toll of terminal illness. Additionally, patients are often living with uncomfortable, even painful, symptoms, ranging from difficulty swallowing to cognitive decline to pains. Finally, patients and their families may frequently have medical bills to manage, home health care support to organize or nursing home admission arrangements to make.
Hospice social workers strive to ease these and other burdens, so patients and their families can experience some calm during this challenging time.
Helping Patients and Families Navigate Late-Stage Illness
Late-stage illnesses can require round-the-clock care. Oftentimes the families of patients experiencing late-stage illnesses feel uncertain in their roles as caretakers. Hospice social workers help caretakers manage their responsibilities by:
- Providing educational materials about caregiving
- Discussing safety issues caregivers should watch out for
- Identifying strategies that address a loved one’s specific needs
For example, hospice social workers assisting someone caring for a person with advanced dementia may educate the caregiver about ways to positively interact with their loved one, such as playing favorite music or showing them old photos. The social worker may advise the caregiver to set a toileting schedule, or recommend ways to protect the patient’s skin from sores.
Identifying Resources and Support Services
Hospice social workers coordinate family support systems. This involves identifying community services such as Meals on Wheels, a food delivery service for the homebound, or Lifeline, a medical alert system. It might also involve arranging for volunteers to provide art therapy or scheduling pet therapy visits.
Often families also must manage insurance issues, medical bills, child care needs and more while they try to navigate the end-of-life situations of loved ones. Hospice social workers may help families find financial assistance, supplemental care or grief counseling.
Differences Between Palliative and Hospice Social Work
Palliative care helps people with serious illnesses manage their symptoms and live more fulfilling lives despite their diagnoses. The goals of palliative and hospice social work are similar. Both types of social work focus on:
- Bringing comfort
- Relieving pain
- Lowering stress
- Providing psychological healing and rebuilding social connections
Despite these shared goals, hospice social work and palliative social work differ in key ways. Hospice social work supports people who are dying and are no longer seeking curative treatments. Hospice patients usually have six months to live or less, and hospice social workers focus on providing the support needed to give those approaching the end of their lives the best quality of life possible. Palliative social work focuses on supporting individuals confronting serious illnesses that may or may not be terminal. Palliative social workers typically work with people still seeking curative treatments, but not always.
Steps to Become a Hospice Social Worker
Steps to become a hospice social worker include getting the right education, licensure, experience and credentialing.
Step One: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree
Aspiring social workers typically start by earning a bachelor’s degree in either social work or a related discipline such as psychology or sociology. A bachelor’s degree in social work supplies individuals with foundational knowledge of human behavior, such as the grieving process, and social work ethics, such as honoring the value and worth of every individual. It can also qualify graduates to assume entry-level supervised positions in hospice care.
Step Two: Earn a Master’s Degree
To advance past entry-level social work roles, individuals must earn an advanced degree. A Master of Social Work, which can take 16 months to two years to complete in a full-time format, prepares social workers for professional licensure. It involves in-depth study of social work methods and interventions and the completion of a practicum. M.S.W. programs allow students to specialize in areas of interest. They train students to provide services and treatments fundamental to hospice social work.
Step Three: Obtain a Social Work License
Clinical social workers need a license to practice in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. Nonclinical social workers also need a license in most states. To obtain a professional license, social workers must hold an M.S.W., complete two years of supervised experience and successfully pass an exam. Aspiring hospice social workers can elect to complete their supervised experience in a hospice care setting. This will be helpful when they seek additional certification in hospice social work.
Step Four: Get Certified as a Hospice Social Worker
Although not required, certifications in hospice care can help social workers compete for positions in the field. The National Association of Social Workers offers an APHSW-C, or an advanced palliative and hospice social work certification, to eligible candidates. This certification indicates to employers, patients and families that a hospice social worker provides a high standard of care. Requirements for eligibility include:
- An M.S.W.
- At least 20 continuing education units in hospice care
- A minimum of two years’ supervised experience in hospice care
- A professional social worker license
Hospice Social Worker Salary and Job Outlook
Social workers as a whole had a median annual salary of $51,760 in May 2020, while health care social workers’ median salary was $57,630, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Top earners can make upward of $85,820 a year; salaries can vary based on work experience and locations.
Additionally, the BLS projects the number of jobs in social work to climb 13% between 2019 and 2029, with social work positions in health care expected to rise 14%.
Support the Dying with Compassionate Care
Hospice patients and their families often confront uncertainties and grief in the midst of trying to solve practical problems. A hospice social worker offers invaluable support, helping solve these problems while also bringing comfort and dignity to the dying process.
Explore how an online Master of Social Work from Virginia Commonwealth University prepares graduates to support the dying and their families with compassionate care.
Alzheimer’s Association, Late-Stage Caregiving
American Cancer Society, “What Is Hospice Care?”
Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “Creating an Effective Hospice Plan of Care”
Center to Advance Palliative Care, “Talking with Patients About Hospice”
Hospice Red River Valley, “The Distinct Role of a Hospice Social Worker”
Hospice Red River Valley, “Hospice Social Workers: Providing Support to Patients and Families”
National Association of Social Workers, Advanced Certified Hospice & Palliative Social Worker (ACHP-SW)
National Institute on Aging, “What Are Palliative Care and Hospice Care?”
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers
Verywell Health, “Hospice Social Worker Job Profile”
Vitas Healthcare, “A Day in the Life of a Hospice Social Worker”