How Social Workers Help Caregivers

Alison van Schie

How Social Workers Help Caregivers

Alison van Schie

I am retired from social work, but during my career I had the opportunity and privilege to provide a variety of services within the profession. I rounded off my social work career in a residential care home which led to private practice. This was my niche. I quickly realized there was a huge need to provide services and support to caregivers. I remember once when a caregiver looked directly into my eyes with a look of loss, fear and desperation. It was at that moment I realized my calling was to step up and step into the world of supporting caregivers.

For a long time, people have associated social work with child protection, welfare (financial assistance), and adoption services, but these professionals do so much more. In fact, there are many social workers who work specifically with caregiving families. They may not be the first professional you would think to seek out throughout your caregiving journey and, yet, they can offer so much support. Overall, social workers are great listeners who can help you find and access the resources you need to care for a loved one.

Social Worker Definition

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) defines social work as a practice that, “consists of the professional application of social work values, principles, and techniques to one or more of the following ends: Helping people obtain tangible services; counseling and psychotherapy with individuals, families, and groups; helping communities or groups provide or improve social and health services; and participating in legislative processes.”

The simplest definition of a social worker--how I used to describe myself--is professional gap-filler. They are resourceful people who help clients find what they need to reach their maximum potential at every stage of life. They do this by using their knowledge and training, all while upholding the Social Workers Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice. Basically, when a client--an individual, family, or community--is struggling or feeling lost, the social worker’s role is to shine a light on the client’s expertise, innate strength, and resources so they can progress toward their goals and reach their maximum potential.

Social Worker Duties

Social workers are big-picture thinkers who perform psychosocial assessments to determine what systems are affecting a client and how to best apply services based on their identified strengths and specific needs to help them reach their goals. 

Role of the social worker in elderly care.

Geriatric social workers focus on elderly clients and their families to ensure they receive the mental, emotional, social, and familial supports they need while connecting them to resources for supplementary support. (See? Gap-fillers.) Geriatric social workers adjust their services to a senior’s ever-changing circumstances. They can assist with completing documents, and their knowledge of the aging process enables them to detect and address mental health concerns such as anxiety or depression.

Where to find geriatric social workers.

If you are in need of a geriatric social worker for your caregiving journey, you may find them in hospitals, community health clinics, hospice settings, long-term care homes, outpatient services, adult protection services, faith based communities, private practices, rehabilitation centers, referral centers, and government agencies.

What to expect when meeting with a geriatric social worker.

Once you meet with a geriatric social worker, they will perform a comprehensive psychosocial assessment to determine your loved one’s mental, emotional, and social needs and any medical conditions relating to their wellbeing. They will explore: Past and present mental, emotional and medical health; behavioral challenges the senior may have exhibited or is experiencing; and family background and dynamics including education, occupation, social, and financial factors. All this information is obtained while respecting the fragility of life situations and meeting folks where they are at.

I maintain that those receiving social work services are the experts in their own lives and this expert status should never be minimized. By obtaining a total picture through a psychosocial assessment, the social worker can help the senior, family, and multidisciplinary team design the best care plan possible. Every life is valuable and deserving of dignity and respect, and every voice needs to be heard. This is easy to say from the keys of my laptop, yet the reality of diminished cognitive abilities, failing health, family dynamics, dysfunction, injustices, poverty, substance abuse, mental illness, racial inequality, gender biases, LGBTQ experiences, and associated stigma are never far away. These are the places where you will see social workers exercising their skills as: Advocates, activists, assessors, community-builders, life-enrichers, de-escalators of volatile situations, resource-allocators, educators, facilitators, counsellors, and more.

How Social Workers Support Caregivers

As a caregiver, you may be in a place where you feel stuck and need resources. You may even be feeling burned out. Social workers can assist. They will listen to you and help you identify what it is you need even if you are struggling to put things into words.

Whether you are caregiving at home or your loved one is in residential care, social workers can:

  • Access the financial resources you and your loved one may be eligible for such as Medicaid, pensions, insurance, Veteran’s Affairs, or governmental assistance programs.
  • Identify services that enhance your experience as well as your loved one’s experience, such as respite care, day programs, transportation catering to special needs, and affordable medical equipment, such as hearing aids or mobility aids.
  • Help your family talk about difficult topics such as end of life, funeral planning, and advance care planning and make recommendations on accessing information on advance directives, wills, representation agreements, power of attorney, etc. They will help you get a clear picture of what your loved one’s wishes are along with your own.
  • Address family dynamics. Not all families function optimally, in fact dysfunction may be the norm within some family systems. A social worker can provide non-judgmental attention to each and every family member while keeping their radar finely tuned to what is going on within the family. When the social worker’s radar detects a problem, they can identify the action that needs to be taken to address and process the problem for their client’s safety and wellbeing.
  • Work with the guardian and trustee for those who have had power imbalances that required intervention to safeguard the elder and their assets.
  • Provide bereavement or grief counseling when your loved one has passed away and beforehand as you experience the losses that come with aging and dementia or chronic illnesses. They help families talk through the emotional and practical issues they encounter. 
  • Liaise and collaborate with the medical team as treatment plans are developed and updated (physicians, nurses, psychologists, occupational therapists, case managers, and other healthcare staff) and manage a discharge plan from hospital if need be. The social worker can relay a family’s wishes to the staff in long-term care, i.e. if the family feels their loved one could benefit from a special type of intervention and therapy or has a preference that the staff should know.
  • Set-up care conferences, facilitate family meetings, and assist when the family is in a different province or State.
  • Be the approachable link between the care community, the resident, and their family.
  • Locate support groups that may help your specific situation. You will find the social worker is often a facilitator of support groups.
  • Provide information and education on the disease process and what to expect.
  • Provide comfort and help you feel less alone.
  • Find the right channel to help you voice complaints when necessary.
  • Manage a crisis and help fortify existing coping skills.
  • Provide clarity for future planning.

Social Work Month 2021 Theme

March is Social Work Month, and the theme for 2021 is “Social Workers are Essential.” Social workers do a lot of work behind-the-scenes. As a result, their impact can get overlooked, but they are a powerful force guided by a Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice. When you start collaborating with a social worker, you will see just how essential they are. If you know a social worker, Social Work Month is a perfect time to tell them how much you appreciate them. Saying thanks by sending them a card or a note or giving back to your community, like donating to a food bank, are both actions you can take to let them know how much you value their work.