Join the journey of a fairly recently graduated MSW social worker, navigating the expanse of hospice social work in the south, the ups and downs of graduate school, LCSW exam stress and excitement, and preparing for a future in macro social work practice

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Something is Right With You

"I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart." -Anne Frank
I had a client come into my office the other day. An elderly gentleman who reported that that he has been feeling very lost since the death of he wife and constant companion of 64 years. As he described to me the tragic circumstances surrounding his wife’s passing, my heart ached for him. Before I started working in bereavement, I was under the mistaken impression that it is not such a big deal when the elderly die because they are nearing the end anyway and “have lived a good long life” (as the platitudes offered by well-meaning well-wishers often go). Tell that to the person who has spent the last 64 years with someone by his side.

As a young person, it is difficult for me to even comprehend 64 years of my own life, let alone the idea of spending that much time with a loved one. (At this point, my chances of actually being with someone for that long are really pretty slim. Unless I live to be very very old).

Loss is difficult at any age and for any person. Much of what grieving people need is an opportunity to share their story with someone. Too many times, the bereaved person’s circle of support moves on before the bereaved one is ready to. Too many times, the bereaved person feels like he or she needs to put the grief aside and “get on with life.” Our fast-paced American culture expects the healing process to occur in a small window of time (as evidenced by the fact that most companies only offer about 3 days of bereavement leave).

A vast majority of my hours with clients involves listening to their stories and allowing them to express their grief. Because we live in an impatient culture, bereaved people often feel like something is wrong with them because they are spending “too much” time focusing on the death of a loved one.

The simple truth is that this painful focus is actually a sign that something is right with them. The fact that people have not become so jaded and cynical that they still see and feel the pain that comes with losing a loved one is a sign to me of the goodness of human nature. That in a world full of constant news of tragedies, both personal and public, people still find it in their hearts to love someone else so much that a loss impacts them this badly tells me what amazing creatures we human beings are. 

Friday, March 2, 2012

Moving up in the world

January was an eventful month for me. I found myself averaging about two job interviews a week. I have been ready to leave my rural community and have been willing to take just about any social work job in order to be able to move to a larger city. The interview with the company that would most closely fit my description of a "dream job" interview went particularly poorly, so I was shocked to receive an offer from them a week or two later. 

28 days ago, they contacted me with an offer that was better than I had even begun to hope for. After some consideration, I decided to take it, and have spent the last 28 days preparing to say goodbye to my patients. I said my final patient and colleagues goodbyes today and yesterday, will move tomorrow, and will start my new job on Monday.

I am looking forward to becoming a grief and bereavement counselor for a  agency. I worked in hospice for most of graduate school, but will be transitioning from medical social work to bereavement care. I'm somewhat nervous about the transition. I will be going from a small, hospital-based for-profit agency in a rural area to a large, independent, non-profit agency in an urban area. In the coming weeks, I hope to write several posts comparing the diverse experiences of these two paths.  For now, I probably need to focus on learning as much as I can and working hard to prove myself at my new job. Wish me luck!

What are some things you do to adjust to a new agency or a new position?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Religion and spirituality

So one of the volunteers I work with mentioned the other day that I am “just not religious enough to be a good social worker.”  Terrific.

I have two problems with this statement: A) Since when is religiosity (or even spirituality) a prerequisite for success as a social worker? And B) Since when am I not religious?

We are planning a memorial service for hospice families that have lost loved ones in the last year.  It is taking place in a local church. We were discussing the order of programs and it was mentioned that we need an opening and closing prayer. I offered to say the closing prayer. One of the volunteers looked at me and said, “Um, we are looking for someone to pray who has more, um, traditional beliefs. You know, beliefs that go along with the majority of the people in this area.” That was what he said, but what he meant, if you are not a Baptist preacher or preacher’s wife, you are not qualified to pray in public. 

Never mind the fact that this is a non-denominational memorial service meant for members of any/all/no religion. 

During the same conversation, my boss commented to me "you are so unchurched it is ridiculous." Which is actually not true, given that I am a weekly participant in church services, pray several times a day, attend scripture study weekly, and volunteer much of my time each week to my church.

As eye opening as it has been spending this time in the south, I struggle with this a great deal. I grow weary of people assuming that religiosity equals worth in a person. I have had hospice volunteers who have refused to go into the home of a patient who is not religious, and volunteers who have all but insisted that their own minister meet with a non-religious patient to make sure that patient is all right before Jesus before death.

Although intentions may be sincere, this creates challenges as a social worker to train volunteers and staff members to protect the patient’s own right to determine what he/she needs from a spiritual point of view.

Social workers are trained to work in a very inclusive fashion, and to accept the realities of other people’s lives without judgment. This applies to religious beliefs and practices as well. While I don’t personally mind being the religious minority, I do wish that there was a little bit more open mindedness about that in my area.

How do religion and spirituality and social work relate? I feel like in some lines of work, it is a very fine line that separates them. What has your experience been? If you find it to be a fine line, how do you navigate it?

By the way, this is a fascinating project that is attempting to better understand and bring together world religions. If you are interested in getting a better understanding of world religions- either for yourself or to better understand your clients- check out: Project Conversion. And follow it on Facebook here.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Let the Job Search Begin

Today marks exactly 90 days until I graduate with my MSW. 

Not that I am counting or anything.

I was planning on waiting until I was a month or so away from graduation to start applying for full-time jobs. I was recently reading some articles that reminded me what a bad economy we live in and that it generally takes people several months longer than they think it will to actually find a job (and that’s assuming people find jobs at all).

So I decided I’d start sending out my resume now.  This has a potential to pose logistical challenges only if I get offered a full-time job very quickly and they want me to start right away and are unable to wait for me to finish classes and field (I graduate in December). But judging from how long it typically takes employers to actually make hiring decisions, I’m not terribly concerned. Indeed, if my biggest problem is that I get offered a job before I am ready to take it, I’m in pretty good shape.

My fear is that the opposite will happen: That I will send out a bazillion resumes and not be able to find a job. 

I am a “macro” social worker. My work in hospice has been an exciting combination of clinical work and community outreach, but I have a feeling that if I pursue the hospice social work track in an area that is not small and rural, it will be mostly clinical. My emphasis in grad school has been management and community practice, and although I have some clinical interest, my passion has always been the macro stuff. This makes the job search more… interesting.

Direct practice social work jobs are generally pretty cut and dry. They typically require a degree, a license of some sort, supervision, etc. And they are usually in the areas of mental health, medicine, or case management. When it comes to job hunting, direct practice social workers can go to great websites like The Social Work Job Bank, find their dream job, submit their resume and voila! (Okay, it’s that easy to APPLY for direct practice social work jobs; actually GETTING one is another story).

There is no real job bank for macro social workers (that I know of). There are sites offering guidance. One such that I have recently found is The Macro Social Work Blog, which is a great read but unfortunately not updated all that often. A macro social worker’s job description might not say “social work” anywhere in it. Macro social workers might be community organizers, or volunteer coordinators, or program assistants, or a combination of any number of interesting job titles.

Employers of direct practice social workers typically know what a social worker’s job is (although as any social worker knows, we are frequently used inappropriately). Macro social workers often have to explain what their skills are to potential employers. In the last two weeks, I have heard the following quotes from people:

 “Social Workers do something other than hand out food stamps? Really?” (From a random person at Wal-Mart

“If you don’t want to work for the Department of Social Services, why did you get a degree in social work?” (From my roommate)

“I did not know that there was such a thing as ‘macro social work.’ What exactly is the point of that?” (This one was actually a month or two ago, at a job interview, from a potential employer) 

Feeling like I have to explain my passion for social work and why I went into this field despite not really being interested in mental health or social services is draining. I can’t honestly say that I am looking forward to explaining my skills and qualifications to future employers who don’t know what the point of macro social work is.

But the hardest part, I think, will be narrowing down my own pool of interests until I can settle on some options that would be good for me. Ideally, I would like to work for a large non-profit organization doing community outreach. One of the things that the Macro Social Work Blog mentions is that a lot of social work jobs don’t require a master’s degree, and some don’t even require a bachelor’s degree. This means two things for me:

1) I have to teach myself that it is okay to seek this kind of a job even though it may be viewed as “less important” than the licensure-track positions that my classmates are pursuing.

2) I have to learn to put into words the feelings I have about the importance of my education and how it relates to what I do. This is helpful both in order to accomplish number 1, and also to explain why my experience will be valuable to a company.

I’ll tell you what I want. I want to find a job that will give me opportunities for community outreach and advocacy. I want to live in an urban area that has a low enough cost of living that I can afford to live at least relatively close to the downtown area. I’m open to living in a foreign country if such a place needs social workers. 

I want to make enough money to be able to put gasoline in my car, feed myself on a regular basis, avoid the homeless shelter (avoid living in them; I’d be open to working in one), and eventually pay back those pesky student loans. Unless an anonymous benefactor decides that I am terrific enough that I deserve complete forgiveness on those loans. In which case I’d happily accept such an offer. And if any of you social workers out there are reading this blog-post and have a lead on a job for me, I’d happily accept such an offer from you too (did I mention that I am willing to move just about anywhere, provided that a reasonably sized city is somewhat close?)

So, with all that said: Let it be known to the world that the job search has officially begun. May the Full-Time-Job-Gods be on my side. May the We-Live-In-A-Crappy-Economy-And-Most-People-Are-Grateful-To-Be-Using-Their-Masters-Degrees-To-Sling-Burgers-Gods be curiously distracted.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Elders and racism

I got a scholarship for working with the elderly. It’s funny, because I went into social work because I wanted to work with children and issues of poverty, but I continue to find myself drawn to the aging people.
When I moved to the rural south, I learned how prevalent issues of race and racism still remain in our country. Coming from the west, where people's skin color is relatively non-diverse, and the absence of racial minorities creates a pretense of the an absence of racism, this discovery was rather surprising to me.
I visited a patient the other day, and she spent an hour telling me that she is “not racist, but I just think white people should stay with white people and black people should stay with black people. I’m not racist, but that ‘s just the way it is.” I encounter this type of old fashioned racism a lot among the elderly people I work with in the south. I’m never entirely sure what to do about it. A part of me wants to correct this type of thinking, but a part of me wonders what the point in attempting to do so with a dying person is. What do you think?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Performance Evaluation

Just when I start to think that I am doing well in life, I get some sort of reminder about all of my vast areas for improvement. This time it came in the form of a performance evaluation at work. Not that it was anything really bad (I do enjoy my job, for the most part); it was just a reminder of how far I have to go. More of the same old… I need to organize my stuff better, document better, etc. Blah. I just want to be the world’s most perfect social worker now, dang it!
Honestly, I don’t know about this whole “being an adult” thing. It’s hard sometimes. I think I chose a tough field to get involved with given the fact that it has such a high burnout rate. If I can just survive this year, which is extra tough because I am studying social work in school, working as a social worker, and doing a social work field placement. I think that when I have time to think about things other than social work, I will be okay. Until then, I just need to pray for better organization skills and find a couple of good social work mentors.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

An Interesting Request

So I went to visit one of our new hospice patients last week. This was a really nice patient and we had a great visit. As we were nearing the end of our conversation, I asked her if she had any goals for her time as a hospice patient. Her response: “I’d love to ride with Mark Martin.”

Now, I had no idea who Mark Martin was, but I guess he’s some kind of NASCAR driver (I don’t follow racing, but everyone in my town loves it). She was half-joking, and the race does not come here for another couple of months so I don’t know if it would be possible anyway. Still, I thought to myself, it’d sure be super cool to make her dream come true.

I've always kind of thought that one of the jobs of a social worker is to help make people's dreams come true, and that idea was one of the reasons I pursued social work. That desire so frequently gets lost in all of the other obligations of Social Workers, but it is still there in the back of my mind. I can't stop thinking about this patient and her goal. I really want to see it happen, but I don't know how.I wonder how I get in touch with a race car driver?

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