Social Work and Hospice

By: Caroline Reid, Ph.D., MSW, online social work program coordinator and associate professor

Students often do not consider a career in hospice due to a few misconceptions.  Hospice provides care to all fifty states as well as Puerto Rico, Guam, the District of Columbia and the U.S Virgin Islands. In 2014 there were approximately 61,000 locations and still growing.

Many believe that this type of work is very ‘depressing’ as it is almost certain that the patient will eventually die.  However, social workers in hospice settings offer a meaningful service through assisting the patient and their family through the grieving process.  Hospice actually makes the dying process easier for families and patients. 

Another myth about hospice and death is that it only impacts the elderly. In 2014, 15.3% of patients were in the age range of 35-64, making this the largest group of young people. Approximately 0.3% of patients were between the ages of 25-34 and 0.5% were less than 24 years old. Although a lot of the deaths tend to be among the elderly, there are younger populations who receive Hospice’s services as well.

Hospice helps patients and their family members cope with the emotional, spiritual, medical and financial aspects of a serious illness. Hospice’s goal is to ensure that their patients have a high quality of life until they die, working with terminally ill patients and their families to ensure support and comfort during the final stage of their life. The focus is on CARE not CURE.

So what types of skills do social workers use in Hospice settings?   

First, they should be good ‘team players’. The social worker is part of an interdisciplinary team that works together to provide the needed care for both the patient and their family. Secondly, social workers must be trustworthy and active listeners when dealing with the families’ thoughts, concerns and grief. They must also be empathetic. Dealing with raw emotions concerning death can be difficult for all parties involved. Being able to support the patient and family during and after the passing is important.  Lastly, social workers should practice good self-care so that they fully understand the emotional/spiritual impacts that it has on the worker.

In addition, social workers’ knowledge of core values of social work comes into play when working in Hospice.  Social workers must be good at promoting the patients right to self-determination and upholding the value of death with dignity. Being able to provide the patient and their family with support is important during this time. It is also important for social workers to be culturally competent and respectful when serving people of all ages, races and ethnic backgrounds. Respect is an important part of working with this population (Wheeler & McClain, 2015).

Hospice is in all fifty states and every county within. Each hospice has multiple teams depending on the number of patients served. Each team has a social worker with a degree ranging from bachelors to doctorate level.

How does a degree in social work help prepare social workers to work in Hospice? 

Most social work programs require at least two classes in Human Behavior theory.   Hospice social workers frequently use a variety of different theories and perspectives. These theories help to establish a better understanding of both the clients and their families. Some of the most frequently used are; Person-in-Environment, Systems Theory, Behaviorism and Social Learning Theory, Psychosocial Developmental Theory, Social Constructionism and Conflict Theory.

Knowledge is important because social workers are responsible for educating their patient and their families. For example the ‘person- in- environment’ perspective and systems theory looks at all aspects of a person’s life as well as what is happening in and around them. Examining these systems help social workers see how the person is interacting with their environment. This allows professionals to better understand their behavior using ecomaps, genograms and networking to fully understand and assess the patient.  Social workers can then try to strengthen the weakened parts of the system. This includes family systems as well as an individual’s systems. Assessments can show how these systems affect both the patient and family functioning.

A career with hospice can be very rewarding and fulfilling. A degree in social work will help you get there. 


Organization, N. H. (2015). NHPCO Facts and Figures on Hospice Care. Retrieved from National Hospice and Pallative Care Organization:

Wheeler, D. P., & McClain, A. (2015). Social Work Speaks. Washington D.C.: NASW Press.







Published on February 19, 2018