A Simple Conversation Can Save Families from Anguish

“A few simple conversations can save a family from anguish when someone is dying. It’s possible to die comfortably at home with your people and your pets, all that you love, surrounding you.” This is the knowledge that inspires Alive’s Lead Social Worker Maureen Rieck in her work.

“I entered the field because I want to help families have better conversations about terminal illness and death and dying. I want people to know their options.”

Maureen knows firsthand how devastating a loved one’s final days can be. She started her social work career in the ICU but moved to Alive to have more time and connection with her patients and their loved ones.

“In the ICU there’s no time to build relationships. Most patients are heavily sedated. The interactions are brief, and patients move out quickly. It’s a three-day average stay. At Alive I have the privilege to build relationships over time. I’m often talking to multiple family members about many different things, and I enjoy the wrap around aspect we have here.”

Alive’s social workers connect patients and families to resources and help with practical issues like insurance paperwork so that families aren’t overwhelmed by “the business of dying.” On an emotional level, they support families by meeting them where they are and helping them understand what to expect.

“When life is beginning, we have What to expect when you are expecting and so many other resources. There are not as many resources to help a loved one die or to get through it yourself. Education is one of the best things I can offer along with cheerleading and support. Caregivers experience so much doubt; I offer reassurance.”

Since starting at Alive a year ago, Maureen has made many great memories. One of her favorites is the support she was able to provide a patient who was an ocean away from home with no one at his side except his care team.

“He was a ward of court from Ethiopia with no local contacts. He lived in a nursing home where he wasn’t being cared for properly. His hair was matted, so I brought my own clippers and cut it for him. We connected him with a volunteer who brought him Ethiopian food twice a month and ate with him. At Christmas, we made sure he had a tree. You don’t have to be alone in the end; you can get a lot of help.”

Alive’s Sunshine Fund provides for small purchases like these that make a huge difference when a patient doesn’t have resources.

In her work, Maureen also combats fears and misconceptions about hospice.

“There is a lot of fear that hospice kills…and this is among many different types of people. I’ve often heard “hospice gave my mom morphine, and she died.” A big part of the education is that morphine is a very safe and effective way to keep patients comfortable and not hurting. Addiction is not a concern when someone is dying. Our goal is to stop the pain while keeping people alert. But there’s much more to hospice than morphine and pharma. There are many ways to ease pain in addition to drugs. We use heating pads, pillows, etc. The right equipment and supplies also take the burden off people fighting disease.”

As the Lead Social Worker Maureen also works closely with the entire social work team. She orients new social workers, making sure they have what they need to succeed in the field. She also finds speakers to provide ongoing education at team meetings and liaises with Alive’s leadership to make sure the social workers are represented and have what they need to do the best job possible.

“I love my job. I love the families I get to work with. Hospice doesn’t need to be scary. We help our patients to have the most good days they can. Any day you can spend at home with people and pets and not in the hospital is a good day. I love to make that happen.”

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