Twenty-nine years as a hospice social worker

Posted by Debbie Lee, Social Worker

Twenty-nine years as a hospice social worker
Debbie Lee

This is my 29th year as a hospice social worker, and my 26th year with JourneyCare and its legacy hospices. I wish I had a dime for everyone who has ever said to me, “Gee, your work must be so depressing …” I would have a truckload of money and I might have retired by now! But I think it’s better this way: I love what I do, I have never found it depressing and I’m in no hurry to retire from it.

Being a hospice social worker demands a very full toolkit of both clinical and non-clinical skills. Sometimes people have misconceptions about what a social worker is and does, so when I walk into a patient’s home for the first time, I am very conscious of the need to quickly establish a rapport so I can explain my role on the team and patients and their families begin to share freely with me. 

Officially, my job is to do an initial psychosocial assessment, and to develop a plan of care based on that assessment. Unofficially, my visits as a hospice social worker may involve reminiscing with a patient about their childhood, taking them outside in their wheelchair on a beautiful day, bringing a favorite food, or encouraging a patient to sing familiar songs with me – whatever I can do to brighten the person’s day at that particular moment. One time, I had a lovely patient who had always been very fashionable, and the main thing she wanted from me was to polish her nails!

Family members of hospice patients often need emotional support and guidance as they navigate the ups and downs of disease progression, anticipatory grief, bureaucratic obstacles and challenging decisions they may need to make. All of this requires being a good listener with my ears… and with my heart. 

The social worker is an important part of a hospice patient's interdisciplinary team. I need to know what the medical issues and interventions are in order to do my job. And my insights into the patient’s personality and the family dynamics may help my other team members to understand why we may sometimes have to “think outside the box” to address a particular symptom in a different way than we usually would.

Oftentimes, I am called upon to provide support to other team members because it is not possible to do this very intense work without acknowledging our own emotional responses.

The social worker also interfaces with the general public and other healthcare professionals. I have given a lot of educational presentations on topics such as advance directives, grief and loss, self-care and communicating with persons who have dementia, just to name a few. In my current position on a facilities team, I make a point of interacting with the staff of the communities I visit, so that they see me as a partner and resource when they have questions or concerns. 

Personally, I am driven by a strong sense of mission. My own faith in God motivates and guides me. Not everybody has a religion, but we all have a spirit, and I strive always to connect with that shared spirit that lives in all of us.

Early in my hospice career, I had the privilege of helping care for a young man who was dying of AIDS. He was an extremely talented artist who had published a book of his drawings. We made a deep connection through his artwork and he wrote a poignant dedication in the copy of his book he gave to me. That book is still on my bookshelf, and I feel honored to have shared some small part of his journey at the end of his too-short life.

Far from feeling depressed by this work, I consider myself blessed to have found a career that is so seamlessly aligned with who I am as a person, and I do my work every day with a profound sense of gratitude and wonder.

To learn more about hospice care, visit

Comments (1)

  • Robert

    22 December 2018 at 21:00 | #

    An old friend from Milwaukee 30 plus years ago. Hope to connect up if possible


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