It’s Social Work Month and we join in celebrating the many social workers who advocate on behalf of individuals and families to improve their lives. Social workers provide support in many settings, communities and situations, including when people are facing the distress of illness, loss and grief.
Rebecca Johnson, LCSW serves as a psychosocial team leader for one of our Suncoast Hospice facility-based teams. In this Q&A, Johnson talks about the unique aspects of social work in hospice care; her dual role managing and supporting staff and assessing and counseling patients and families; and the fulfillment of her work.
1. How long have you been at Suncoast Hospice?
I’ve worked for three years at Suncoast Hospice as a psychosocial team leader on a north county facilities team. My role is half supervisory and half patient care.
2. What’s your background?
For the first six years of my career I worked in child welfare and then did community and mental health. I’m a licensed clinical social worker.
3. Why did you decide to go in to social work?
I always knew I wanted to be in this field. You can do so much with it.
4. What interested you about hospice social work?
Halfway through my career I wanted to do more in leadership. I was looking to relocate and saw this Suncoast Hospice management position. It’s a unique role. It’s a privilege.
I love being in hospice, leadership and social work. I always had preconceived notions of what hospice was. When I came here, I fell in love with the culture. It just felt like home. I get a lot of joy from it. It’s a blessing.
5. What’s different about this area of social work?
In some psychosocial professions, you keep yourself at a distance. In hospice, you have more freedom. You still have boundaries but you can allow people to get a little more in your personal space. And you can express your emotions. Sometimes, you tear up. You’re touched in a different way.
It does have days that are hard. I’ve recently lost a couple of patients I grew close to. But it’s so special to be with a person at the most important time in life. I have to do it well. My personal goal is to make that person’s experience with hospice wonderful. When I can turn something around for someone and help that individual feel calm with peace of mind then I’m able to walk away on top of the world.
6. What do you view as the most important responsibilities of a hospice social worker?
A hospice social worker really needs to be an advocate for what the patient wants. So many times the patient’s voice gets lost. You don’t go in with a task, you go in to assess. You must also take the time to slow down, listen and look for those clues that are so subtle and may be missed if you don’t settle in and build trust. You must really be present.
7. How do you assess patients and families?
Anytime you see a patient you assess everything – that individual’s physical pain, family dynamics, mood and spiritual pain. You also assess the family’s pain, which doesn’t stop after their loved one dies. The bereavement support you provide starts the first time you visit. For everyone, you assess what and how much they need, think outside of the box, create a unique plan of care and make adjustments as needed.
8. What challenges do your patients face at the end of life?
Our team cares for patients in facilities and a lot of them don’t have loved ones who live close and take care of them. The biggest challenge is people waiting too long to get in hospice care. They can’t fully benefit from hospice in only two or three days in care. Many come when they’re in crisis.
9. What are your team’s goals in care?
It has to come down to what the patient wants. Whatever it is they need, we’ve got to make it happen. There’s no do-over. One of my goals is to make sure my staff is supported and reminded that they matter, are important and can ask for help anytime.
10. How do you collaborate with your team?
We do a lot of communication with each other and always close the loop. You can’t communicate too much. You need to have faith in your team and ask for help. I’m privileged to have a great team, tools and resources. I’m able to call on them.
11. How do you care for diverse populations?
It’s a constant reminder that we need to put ourselves at the door and ask questions so we can have understanding. People’s differences aren’t good or bad, right or wrong. I think about how I’m going to reach their goals according to their culture and bring them peace.
12. How do you support bereaved families?
With bereavement counseling, I get to make a huge impact by listening to people and allowing them to tell their stories in a judgment-free zone. It’s one of my favorite parts of my job.
13. What’s your involvement with the Suncoast Hospice Community Memorial Services?
Our community memorial services are special times for people to come together to remember loved ones. Our team is partnering with one of our facilities to do a first-time mini service for its residents. Many of these residents have had losses and can’t get out in the community so this will provide them some support.
14. What do you do to unwind from your work?
My kids are huge. Nothing makes a bad day go away like getting a big hug from your kids. We’re so fortunate to live where we do near the water. Sometimes, I like to rock out and dance in my kitchen. Laughter’s also huge. We laugh a lot in hospice. It’s a joyful place to work.
15. What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learned in hospice?
There are so many. Two important lessons to me are to stop and be in the moment and to not fear death. I’ve seen so many beautiful transitions when people move on and those have taken away that fear of death. It has been one of the best gifts. As long as hospice is around, nobody is going to die alone and it’s there if I need it someday.
16. What would you say to those considering hospice?
There’s never a downside. Many people regret they didn’t get it sooner. We always have someone who can talk to you and answer your questions.