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There may be no more challenging area of social work than hospice and palliative care. Helping those facing chronic or terminal illness is daunting and emotionally taxing as well; in the face of death and disease, social workers offer clients comfort while assisting with essential tasks (e.g. patient advocacy, medical appointments, insurance and billing, family mediation). At a time of great stress and crisis, hospice and palliative care social workers bring calm and stability.
Driving hospice and palliative care social work is a desire to help people live their lives as fully as possible, right to the very end. It’s a challenging vocation in which best practices are evolving. More so than in other practice areas, hospice and palliative care work requires ongoing learning and support.
How should social workers in this field keep up with the latest assessment tools and practices? Conferring with peers is a great way to share what you have learned (as well as a great way to enjoy the therapeutic benefits of discussing a difficult profession with others who understand exactly what you’re going through). Professional journals are also a great resource.
Books are another way to stay in touch and informed. Below is a list of five books — many authored by pioneers in the field of hospice and palliative care social work — covering a broad range of essential subjects.
Edited by Koshin Paley Ellison and Matt Weingast
This compilation features contributions from 40 different thought- and practice-leaders in the field of palliative and end-of-life care, including doctors, chaplains, poets, and professional caregivers. Edited by a Zen priest (Kosin Paley Ellison) who is also a licensed master social worker, Awake at the Bedside addresses death and aging with all their messy complications head on: suffering, dementia, and other age-related infirmities are all treated with brutal honesty by the contributors.
Some may find this a tough read, but the insights and guidance provided here justify the challenges. Ellison, drawing on his Buddhist background, infuses the book with elements of uplifting spirituality, which helps contextualize and mitigate some of the more difficult passages. What’s particularly noteworthy about Awake at the Bedside is that it asks practitioners to confront their own feelings about mortality and death.
By Kerry Klunder LBSW, MA
This brief book — at 114 pages, it can be read in one sitting — offers anecdotes drawn from a career in hospice social work as well as ample practical advice on this area of practice. Characterized as “lighthearted” in its jacket copy, Complex Maze is a nice counterbalance to Awake at the Bedside, and as a first-person account, it offers an excellent look at the day-to-day activities and responsibilities of a hospice practitioner. Klunder’s sense of humor makes this an enjoyable as well as informative read.
By Dana Plish
Another short book (at 99 pages, it’s even shorter than Complex Maze), The Dying Process strongly emphasizes the importance of providing clients and their families with ongoing bereavement and grief support. With over 15 years of experience in hospice, author Dana Plish is well-poised to offer a detailed and thorough overview of all the issues social workers in this field engage: helping patients manage pain; dealing with, and sometimes managing, patient-family interactions; supporting patients and family through feelings of grief; examining the barriers to acceptance as the end approaches; and, preparing patients for death and helping them find closure.
Plish deserves special recognition for also focusing on individuals who have suffered pet loss — an often-neglected group — and their need for bereavement support as well.
By Dona J. Reese
An associate professor of social work at Southern Illinois University, Dona Reese is one of the nation’s leaders in guiding professional organizations on hospice work and advancing practices for end-of-life care. Hospice Social Work is one of the few books in the field to delve into the history of the profession and as such offers important and useful context for contemporary practices and attitudes.
Reese is an enthusiastic champion of social-work assessments and interventions, arguing for standardized predictive assessments to both forecast outcomes and to improve practice. Reese’s book also investigates the difference in both frequency and quality of care patients of different races and income levels receive and suggests solutions to bridge these troubling gaps.
By Peter Beresford, Lesley Adshead and Suzy Croft
This book considers palliative care and social work from a unique perspective: it focuses on the professionals engaged in the frontlines of care and how those professionals shape the very services they provide. Drawing on practice-driven experiences and outcomes, the authors share how these experiences inform and define decisions on policy, practice, education, and positive social work delivery in this field. This is a particularly meaningful book for students; as young professionals, their development requires the type of reflection, self-evaluation, and analysis that this book so successfully models.
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