Social Workers Help in Many Ways
By Lisa M. Petsche
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Along the journey of caring for an older relative, chances are you’ll come in contact with a social worker.
Social work is a profession with a long history of commitment to improving the well-being of people in society, particularly the disadvantaged.
Social workers understand the complex interaction between individuals and their environment, and use a variety of strategies to bring about change in persons, situations and institutions. Trained at the university level, they are employed in a wide variety of areas that include direct work with individuals, families and groups, community development, human resources development, social policy, program planning, teaching, and research. The majority are involved in direct service.
Social workers believe in the intrinsic worth and dignity of every human being. They are committed to the values of acceptance, respect for individuality and belief in the client’s capacity for growth. This makes them strong advocates for individual rights and social justice.
Their goal is to empower clients, assisting them to identify their problems and find meaningful solutions, building on their existing strengths. Their assessment includes looking at how clients’ physical and social environment may be contributing to their difficulties and how it might be changed.
In clinical settings, social workers help clients with anxiety, depression, stress, anger management, grief, relationship difficulties, financial problems and other resource issues, and life transitions. They connect people with community resources and advocate for appropriate services where none exist. They aim to prevent crises and, when a person presents to them already in crisis, to help them achieve a positive outcome.
In the community, social workers can be found in many healthcare settings, including medical clinics, government-funded agencies, non-profit organizations such as the Alzheimer’s Association, home healthcare agencies and day care programs. Some workers do home visits.
The role of a community social worker may include: assessing clients’ social, emotional and daily living (practical) needs, their strengths, the supports available to them, and the areas where they require further support; providing one-to-one or family counseling; facilitating support groups; providing education (for example, about normal reactions to stressful situations and strategies for dealing with stress); and providing information about and referral to community resources that can help improve clients’ quality of life.
In healthcare settings such as hospitals and long-term care facilities, social workers are typically part of an interdisciplinary team that includes the following professionals: physicians, nurses, physical therapist, occupational therapist, dietitian, speech-language pathologist, and recreation therapist.
Social workers contribute knowledge about emotional health, life stages, relationships, and community resources. Their work includes assessing the social, emotional, and personal implications of health changes and hospitalization or institutionalization for patients and their families; and helping them learn how to cope more effectively with losses, emotional concerns, behavioral changes, family problems, financial worries, and other practical matters. They also serves as an advocate for patients, helping them overcome barriers to service within the institution and in the community.
In hospitals, social workers coordinate discharge planning, facilitating communication among the patient, significant others and internal and external healthcare providers. They assist with problem solving and making necessary arrangements for the patient to return home or transfer to an alternate setting, such as a nursing facility for convalescent care, a rehabilitation facility for reactivation, or a nursing home for long-term care.
When a patient’s situation is complex, the social worker may organize a discharge conference to review his or her needs – addressing medical management, activities of daily living (self-care and home management skills), mobility, safety, finances, access to the community, recreation and leisure, and caregiver relief – and discuss options for ensuring they are met.
Helping with adjustment
In long-term care facilities, social workers play a significant role around the time of admission. They may be involved in reviewing referrals and organizing pre-admission tours. Upon a resident’s admission, they provide orientation for the person and his or her family, as well as supportive counseling around adjustment issues.
During this initial period, social workers gather personal and social information about the new resident – such as birthplace, work history, significant relationships, pastimes and skills, personality, cultural and religious background, routines and habits - and share it with caregiving staff to help them get to know and understand the person and better meet his or her needs.
Their ongoing role includes addressing quality of life, autonomy, and end of life issues; screening residents for depression; running support groups for residents and family members; and mediating between residents and staff, co-residents, or family members, as well as between staff and families, when conflict arises. In addition, social workers serve as a resource for long-term care staff regarding communication skills, coping styles, family dynamics, mental health, and ethical issues.
(For more information about the social work profession, go online to www.helpstartshere.org.)
Lisa M. Petsche is a medical social worker and a freelance writer specializing in health and elder care issues.