America is aging. According to the Administration on Aging’s (AoA) 2020 Profile of Older Americans, people aged 65 and over comprised 16 percent of the US population in 2019, totaling just over 54.1 million people. Of those millions, most reported at least one chronic health condition; many reported several.
Leading chronic conditions among the elderly include:
Aging presents a unique set of challenges that multiply as the years pass. Nearly 40 percent of Americans age 65 and older report at least one disability regarding mobility, self-care, or household activity, a figure that increases rapidly as Americans pass the age of 75.
America's older population is expected to grow significantly in the future; by 2040, there will be over 80 million older persons in the US, more than twice as many as in 2000. Growing rates of chronic illness combined with longer life spans are already driving the need for qualified social workers trained and skilled in working with palliative and end-of-life care situations. That trend seems sure to continue.
Enter the palliative care social worker, a professional dedicated to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Standards for Palliative & End of Life Care, which state: “At the center of palliative care is the belief that each of us has the right to live and die free of pain, with dignity, and that our families should receive the necessary support to allow us to do so."
Palliative care social work is an important, noble, valuable vocation. But how does it pay? If you're considering this profession, you doubtless wonder how much does a palliative care social worker make? This article answers that question. It also addresses:
Palliative care social workers assist patients when they’re terminally ill or living with chronic disease. They collaborate with other healthcare professionals to provide expert medical care to patients and their families. They provide pain and symptom management as well as emotional and spiritual support tailored to each patient’s needs and wishes. They aim to improve the quality of life for both patients and their families as they navigate issues associated with life-limiting illness.
Palliative and end-of-life matters are deeply personal and encompass a wide range of emotional, psychological, and physical needs. How are these needs addressed? Palliative care social workers assess patient needs and explore and administer treatment options in the context of an individual’s values, symptoms, and shifting goals. According to the NASW, palliative care social workers:
Pauline has always aimed for a purpose-driven life. She found that purpose when she committed to a career in palliative care. As a medical social worker specializing in palliative care, Pauline serves patients with varying needs and terminal illnesses.
When she arrives at her inpatient hospice unit at 8:30 a.m., she’s faced with many problems to solve. Pauline spends a good chunk of her day coordinating with medical staff and patient family members to ensure her patients are getting the care they need. One of her primary goals is to prepare her patients and their families for what’s to come.
Her first task of the day involves joining the morning nurses’ meeting. The night shift nurses inform the day shift crew how each patient fared and report any notable occurrences throughout the night. Pauline’s role during the meeting is to speak on behalf of her patients’ families and relay any concerns they have expressed to her. She also gains insight from the nurses regarding updates to patient care plans so she can inform their families of what to expect moving forward.
During today’s meeting, Pauline learned that one of her patients had passed away. She spent the rest of the morning trying to reach the 98-year-old man’s family to share the news and obtain permission to have the body released to the care of the funeral home. Because she had already prepared the family and assisted with funeral planning, the death will not come as a surprise to them. Pauline also plans to connect with the funeral home to gather the necessary paperwork.
After speaking with the family of the deceased patient, Pauline joins the adult daughter of a patient with emphysema. They enter her mother’s room and find she’s just awoken from a nap, her breathing supported by an oxygen machine. Pauline discusses the care plan with the patient’s daughter before moving on to her next patient, a veteran with end-stage liver disease due to alcohol intake.
This patient, a Vietnam veteran who served in multiple active combat deployments, displayed signs of combat trauma in addition to his chronic illness. Pauline coordinates more advanced care with a nearby VA hospital where he will soon be transferred. She also organizes a short service to honor the veteran and thank him for his service to the country. Pauline knows that this ceremony will be meaningful to the veteran’s family and that it’s just one part of ensuring her patients live with dignity until death.
The remainder of today’s patients include those with cancer, coronary heart disease, COPD, and more. Pauline continually adjusts to the evolving nature of the inpatient unit, regularly assessing each patient’s goals, needs, and strengths. Critical components of her job involve lessening the burden on families while also supporting the staff.
Like many positions within the social work field, earning a degree is the recommended first step toward achieving competency. Palliative care social workers may earn a bachelor’s degree (BSW) and/or a master’s degree (MSW) in social work. Some even choose to continue their studies with a Ph.D.
Gaining real-world experience is also an integral component of the learning process. Social work master's degree programs require a practicum. Ideal practicum settings for palliative care social workers include hospice care, medical centers, home care service providers, and palliative care facilities.
Because many schools do not offer degrees specific to palliative care, students who wish to work in a palliative care setting should tailor their social work degrees with relevant coursework including:
Top colleges offering social work degrees include Boston University, Columbia University, Fordham University, Howard University, Tulane University, and Virginia Commonwealth University
All states require clinical social workers to earn a license to practice; most states require licensure for a broad range of other social work functions. Be sure to check your state’s unique licensure requirements, as some states require a bachelor’s degree while others require a master’s degree or higher. Obtaining licensure typically includes paying a fee, submitting your transcripts, and passing an exam.
Additionally, you may earn certifications specific to palliative care. Gaining certification in palliative care can set you apart during the hiring process by demonstrating your advanced skill set to potential employers. The National Association of Social Workers offers a Certified Hospice and Palliative Social Worker certification for those with bachelor’s degrees. They also offer an Advanced Certified Hospice and Palliative Social Worker certification for master’s level social workers. The Social Work Hospice and Palliative Care Networks offer an Advanced Palliative Hospice Social Worker certification for those with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Palliative care social worker salaries vary depending upon job location, area of specialization, and education level.
According to data from Glassdoor, palliative care social workers in the United States earn an average salary of $66,500 per year. Additional pay, including cash bonuses and profit sharing, could amount to $32,400 per year potentially bumping pay to about $99,000.
Ziprecruiter sees annual salaries as high as $115,500 and as low as $38,500 for hospice social workers. They also note that the average range for hospice social worker job postings varies greatly, suggesting there may be room for promotion and increased pay based upon social work education level, location, and work experience.
Did you know that a Master of Social Work is required for advanced certification in the palliative care field? Many colleges and universities offer online MSW programs.
Tulane University, for instance, offers top-tier options, including a Master of Social Work and a Doctorate in Social Work (DSW). Tulane’s programs equip palliative care leaders with clinical and community-based practice training to empower individuals, families, and communities. Students can complete the MSW in as few as 16 months or four semesters, while the DSW can be completed in as few as seven semesters or three years. Both programs are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education’s Commission on Accreditation.
Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Social Work offers an online Master of Social Work that allows you to complete your degree at your own speed. VCU, the top-ranked school of social work in Virginia, places online learners in real-world field experiences to complement their coursework. The school prepares professional social workers as practitioners, scholars, and leaders.
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