“To know her is to love her…” That’s the common phrase heard when referring to JoAnn LaForce, LCSW-ACHPC for Halcyon Hospice for the past 7 years. Since March is Social Worker’s Month, we decided to talk to JoAnn about her experience in the field, the role of the hospice social worker and a lot more… JoAnn is a special person, teacher, mentor, confidant and co-worker. We’re blessed to have her on the Halcyon team.
Originally pursuing an undergraduate degree in Education, JoAnn didn’t know a career in Social Work was in her future until she took a Humanities class in college. That’s when the Director of the program saw something in her that convinced her to change her major.
JoAnn spent her first few years after graduation working as the Director of the Work Opportunities Program for the Adult Mentally Ill in Atlanta, Georgia while pursuing her Master’s Degree in Clinical Social Work at the University of Georgia. She worked the next four years in Child & Adolescent Mental Health until she opened her own private practice in 1996. Managed Care forced the closing of JoAnn’s practice after 4 years as she did a lot of gratis work with the families she counseled.
Working primarily with children and adolescents, JoAnn never really thought about working in hospice. She always felt she was too “soft-hearted.” But when a hospice opportunity came up at a local hospital she decided to take a PRN position. And, she “fell in love with it.”
When asked what makes a great hospice social worker JoAnn replies, “Being whatever they (the patient and family) need at that time. I’ve learned that you can’t always have an agenda when you go in there. A list of questions or a checklist simply doesn’t work. I always ask myself ‘What if that was me? How would I want to be treated?’”
Putting herself in her patients and families shoes gives her the ability to relate to them in a manner that makes them feel comfortable and allows them to break down the walls often built for protection of privacy.
“I remember right out of college I worked with homeless men and women in downtown Atlanta. I couldn’t ask them to come to my office…I knew they wouldn’t…instead I went to them where they lived on the streets. I would sit with them in their cardboard shacks and drink from their tin cups as you would oblige a host offering you tea or coffee at their house. I learned so many valuable lessons this way…just by listening…not by formulating responses but by hearing what they had to say. Being a chameleon and adapting to the environment you’re in is vital in social work.”
When asked about some of the challenging situations she has been in with patients and families JoAnn recounts numerous stories where she has intervened in crisis situations while acting on the behalf of the patient…”Each patient and family is unique. You’ll never have the same situation and family dynamics. I appreciate the most challenging cases…it gives me the opportunity to utilize my skills. The clinical side of hospice is more black and white but that isn’t so for the psychosocial aspect…we often find ourselves in a very gray area. This requires ‘outside of the box’ thinking.”
As a clinical supervisor for social workers pursuing their LCSW, JoAnn shares her expertise in the field with her colleagues…”I absolutely love teaching. I love it when I can see the light bulb come on…when it suddenly clicks.” According to JoAnn, the most important and difficult lesson for social workers to learn is that, “Our job is to help people but sometimes they don’t want our help. I try to teach them how not to focus on the failures and instead to look at those people who you were able to help…that you’re making a difference in their lives.”
Hospice care extends beyond the physical symptoms of a serious illness. Many patients and families dealing with a terminal illness have social, psychological and emotional needs when it comes to coping during the stressful time of illness, death and bereavement. It’s the hospice social worker’s job to assess these psychosocial needs and (with the help of the interdisciplinary team) develop an individualized plan of care to address the identified needs. Most social workers will tell you that this requires them to wear many hats.
Some of which are:
- Provide a calming presence for the patient and family.
- Help the patient and family access support services like: personal sitters, funeral services, volunteers, companions and other community services.
- Assist the patient and family in making and documenting informed healthcare decisions based on their goals of care including: advance directives, living wills and DNRs.
- Act as a mediator during crisis situations.
- Act as a concierge or resource finder.
- Identify financial and other resources.
- Support the patient interdisciplinary team during meetings where staff share patient status, experiences, ideas, case studies and other pertinent issues in order to provide integrated support to the patient and the family.
- Provide team support for the other members of the patient care team and other hospice Social Workers.
- Assist families with funeral planning and arrangements and paperwork after the death occurs.
We often speak of hospice as being a gift. How can a term widely associated with death and dying be a gift when we all know that life is one of the greatest gifts? It’s simple really…hospice isn’t about death. It’s about life and how you spend it. It’s about quality, support, encouragement and making the most of time.
What dawned on me while listening to JoAnn’s stories of the patients and families she has served was that she doesn’t see it as her giving them a gift but the other way around. They give her a gift by sharing their knowledge, their experiences, their losses and loves, their successes, their fears their failures….their life. These unexpected non-tangible gifts are priceless. When asked how she can work in hospice and deal with so much loss? How does she protect her heart? She’ll tell you “The true gift is that I gain a piece of their heart and that helps me celebrate my life and the lives of those I’ve been blessed to work with.”
JoAnn feels she has come full circle in her career…from working with young children at the beginning of their lives to working in hospice and helping people at the end of their journey. Her philosophy is “If you don’t love what you do, you’re not going to do it well.” You can tell JoAnn loves what she does.
We honor JoAnn LaForce and our entire team of social workers for their dedication to offering comfort, care and compassion to our patients and families. Thank you for ALL you do.