Far from being depressing, social worker Liz Gale says hospice work is rewarding – but support from your team is crucial in achieving this
When people find out that I work at a hospice their initial reaction is “Isn’t that terribly depressing?”.
I am one of a team of social workers at Trinity Hospice in London, providing psychosocial support to patients and their families. Much of the support is psychological, helping patients or those close to them come to terms with the changes that diagnosis of a serious and incurable illness brings.
We are also involved in practical issues, advocating on behalf of patients to link them into services or funds to which they might be entitled. Additionally, the social work team takes the lead in providing pre- and post-bereavement support to those close to our patients (including any children) when someone dies.
Probably the best thing about my job is listening to people talking about their lives. The hospice’s services are open to adults of any age and cultural or social background free of charge so I meet a huge variety of people with different life experiences.
Having a life-limiting illness does tend to make people reflect on finding meaning in their lives, and it’s a privilege to have someone share with me the insight that they have gained by looking back over their achievements and regrets.
The other great thing about my job is the variety – there really is no typical day.
I work with patients and families in our 28-bed in-patient unit, as well as make visits in the community. Each family is different and, because our remit is broad (providing psychosocial support to patients and those close to them), we can respond creatively to the needs of each individual. We provide emotional support on a one-to-one basis or can facilitate family sessions.
Sometimes families need our help to communicate how the situation has affected each of them and to learn how to support each other. It can be tough for family members adjusting to different roles when someone is ill – perhaps having to cook or look after younger siblings for the first time if mum or dad is no longer able to.
I once had a counselling session with one lady who told me she wasn’t up to talking, but would love a cup of Horlicks – sometimes it’s the simplest things you can do for people that make the most difference.
It’s always particularly rewarding if you get the opportunity to help someone achieve a goal or fulfil a dream. I’ve organised trips and parties for patients who have something they’re keen to do despite, or because, of their illness. I’ve not yet been asked to help organise a wedding, but we do sometimes have these at the hospice and I would love to be involved in making someone’s special day happen.
The hospice can be a place of great joy – there are days when relatives who haven’t seen each other in decades are reunited or when a grandparent gets to see a longed-for grandchild for the first time.
We’re all trained in counselling, but also have opportunities to develop other areas of professional interest. I’ve recently been on a course to learn how to use guided imagery and visualisation to help patients deal with anxiety. One of my colleagues is training as a family therapist.
Of course, as is human nature, sometimes you find yourself making a connection with someone and becoming fond of them, so it can be sad when they die. I take some consolation in knowing that I did my best to help them achieve their goals and die with a sense of peace. We also offer bereavement counselling so I know that there is ongoing support available for the family should they need it.
Because the work can be emotionally demanding, it’s crucial that we work as a team to support each other.
It’s important to be able to recognise when one of your colleagues is having a tough day and to be ready with whatever it is that person needs to get through (whether that’s a hug, a listening ear, or a cup of tea).
When my day’s work is finished I know that I’ve been part of a team helping families through a difficult but special and important part of their lives; and to me that’s what social work is about.
This article is published in the 24 September issuse of Community Care magazine under the heading “The hospice can be a place of great joy”
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