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BLOG: The vital role of social work at end of life

Gerry Nosowska explains the importance of social work to good end of life care.

Palliative, end of life and bereavement care matters to everyone. Around half a million people die each year in the UK. All of us need to be supported to consider what will matter to us when we are at the end of our lives, to plan ahead and to live well until we die. Social workers can help to ensure this, alongside other professionals. Yet this is not commonly seen as an important social work role.

A new resource aims to change that. The role of social workers in palliative, end of life and bereavement care has been jointly produced by social workers and people with lived experience of end of life care. It provides a practical explanation of what social workers offer and how to make the most of this. It enables specialist palliative care social workers to highlight their expertise and advocate for their role. And it enables all social workers to identify how they can develop confidence in this area and be supported to do this.

The End of Life Care Coalition recently published a report that highlighted the lack of choice and the variable quality of care available to dying people and their families and carers. The report estimated that 48,000 people had died with poor end of life care in the last year. It called for:

Investment in palliative care specialists and generalist health and social care professionals with the knowledge, understanding and time to deliver choice and provide high quality care for people at the end of their lives.

Social workers have the skills, knowledge and values to make the difference in end of life care. They can ensure that all the needs of people who are dying and those close to them are recognised, have difficult conversations about the future, help people make choices, coordinate support, arrange practical help, use the law to ensure people remain in control of what happens, and support people through loss. A recent report on The effectiveness of social work with adults cited three UK studies which found that people who had seen palliative care social workers were extremely positive about their support. Yet the same studies found that there was an unmet demand for palliative care social work; too many people miss out on social work.

A bereaved husband in his sixties told us: “I think the most important support is time, the giving of time, people finding time for you, and the freedom to ask questions. Having someone independent to go to just to talk through and to say ‘I’m upset, I’m confused’ and just to gain reassurance, because it’s an awful thing to do, to have to take your loved one and leave them behind - a dreadful thing.”

We want this new resource to ensure that everyone knows how they can benefit from good social work at the end of their life, and how those close to them can be supported during this time and into bereavement. And to enable people to ask for this support.