Social workers – We’ve heard of them, maybe even seen them in action, or perhaps even heard of their selfless acts. Yet chances are, not many of us actually know exactly what it is they do. Far from the public eye, they often work silently in the background with willing heart and listening ears to ply their trade.
On 15 March 2016, which is also Social Workers’ Day, I decided to step into the shoes of a social worker with NTUC Health to get first-hand experience and understanding of what it means to be a social worker.
Patience, a Key Virtue
I began my day meeting 33-year-old Care Manager Martin Chin at NTUC Health Cluster Support’s office in Taman Jurong to prepare for the day’s visits to clients’ homes.
The first order of the day, was to familiarise myself with the profiles of my clients and note details such as where they live, what they do. Additionally, I had to also pre-plan my route and prepare documents for these clients to sign, if any.
Shadowing Martin, we headed out to see our first client: 79-year-old Mdm Wong, who suffers from dementia and lives alone. Though her son visits her every day, it’s only for breakfast and dinner, and to administer Mdm Wong’s daily dose of medication. Due to her mental condition, she had complained that she had no food, forgetting that it had already been brought to her. Her neighbours sometimes come by with food when they call on her.
Personally, I had to be very patient in my interaction with her, as she tended to repeat things whenever I asked her things.
Empathy, Caring from the Heart
The second client was 83-year-old Mdm Ee, who lives alone and in dire need for a live-in caregiver to help her overcome mobility issues following recent surgery on both her knees.
Martin’s job now is to help her new maid settle into her role as Mdm Ee’s caregiver. This is done through a caregiving training programme conducted by NTUC Health Care@home.
Martin assigned me the job of getting Mdm Ee’s signature for the training application while he spoke to the new maid.
Conversing with Mdm Ee, I realised just how extensive a trove of stories she had to tell. Recounting her life experiences, she shared how she worked hard throughout her life for her family. That hardship eventually took its toll on her knees, leaving her having to depend on a caregiver to help her through each day. Tearing up a few times as she revealed her life’s details, all I could do was to listen and empathise with her plight.
Resilience, the Human Spirit
Our third client, was 72-year-old Mr Lim, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Having recently lost his wife of 44 years to cancer, he was soon dealt a second blow: he was diagnosed with lung cancer, the same disease that struck his wife. The dual-blows saw him fall into depression, causing him to have suicidal thoughts.
After being screened by NTUC Health Cluster Support and assessed by the Institute of Mental Health to have no suicidal risks, our role was to ensure that his condition remains stable.
Returning back to his office at the end of the day, I asked Martin, who has been with NTUC Health for the past five years, how he manages these experiences every day.
Responding enthusiastically, he said: “There are many challenges into and through my journey as a social worker.
“The situations social work put you in are unique and often extreme. I encountered scenarios such as suicide, neglect, infestation, abuse, mental health, hoarding and caregiver stress.
“What keeps me through all the ups and downs over the years are stories of human resilience. Every elderly I meet and their stories inspire me to be not just a better worker, but also a better person.”
At the end of my day as a social worker, I can only say: Social work is harder than it looks.
I had to be attentive to the patients’ problems, even problems that may not be obvious like dementia. I also had to be a good listener to know their problems in order to help them.
While it was mentally exhausting, I was satisfied in knowing that both Martin and I managed to help vulnerable seniors like Mdm Wong, Mdm Ee and Mr Lim. More should be done to recognise all the hard work that social workers have done for our society.