The Privilege of Palliative Care Social Work

Working in palliative care social work has always been a privilege for me. I’ve been a social worker for almost 15 years and have found so much meaning in supporting patients and families experiencing serious illnesses, first through hands-on hospice and palliative care work and now by teaching current and future social workers about palliative care.

During my years as a hospice and palliative care social worker, I was welcomed into homes during life-changing – and sometimes life-ending – moments where I and my team members held sacred space shared only by the patient’s immediate family. To be there and to offer my skills and support during those critical life moments was a true gift.

As a professor of social work, I teach BSW and MSW students about palliative care and I try to encourage and inspire them to pursue this important field of practice. People living with chronic and terminal illness are at risk for significant physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering and palliative care is essential to addressing those needs.

Palliative care social workers are an integral part of the interdisciplinary palliative care team. Patients, families, caregivers, and colleagues need our expert support. Building new skills through high-quality education helps us practice at the top of our license.

Yet, in our work, we often gain as much as we give. Many of the powerful lessons I’ve learned through my patients have carried over into my own life:

  • Don’t take little moments for granted – be present and enjoy the time you have here
  • Connect with the ones you love – make time for this connection, make it meaningful, and do it often
  • Play is just as important as work – don’t neglect having fun

I’ve learned equally important life lessons from inspiring and dedicated colleagues and care providers who have worked alongside me:

  • Find balance in the work you do – keep healthy professional boundaries, make sure to work on self-care, and avoid burn out so you can remain an effective provider
  • Listen to others – your patients, families, caregivers, care providers, colleagues, etc. True listening helps us really hear what is important to those we care for and helps us structure our interventions to support personal goals
  • Understand the importance of just being with someone – true presence and authenticity shows how much we care, and sometimes that is exactly what is needed most

The theme of this year’s National Social Work Month is Social Workers are Essential – that could not be truer than in the field of palliative care. I’m grateful to be a part of it.

Nicole Perry, LCSW ACHP-SW, CHPCA, is an educator, author and clinician who teaches courses on human development, mediation, clinical practice, medical social work and other topics at Aurora University. She is the author of Building Healthy Boundaries, a free eBook published by the CSU Shiley Institute for Palliative Care.

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