Kenneth Gates, Belfast
Waldo County Home Health & Hospice, End-of-life Care
After a stint in the military and years of running his own businesses, Ken Gates worked in the corporate world until he felt “a quiet nudge from behind.” Ageism.
That’s when he decided to put his life experience to better use. And he followed his heart.
Three years ago, at age 61, he enrolled in UMaine’s School of Social Work.
“I’ve always been interested in older folks. I seek them out for their wisdom, their different perspective,” he says.
“I lost my parents when they were in their 60s. I wasn’t able to help them wind down their lives. That’s why clinical work with the elderly is what I wanted desperately to do.”
In his practicum with Waldo County Home Health & Hospice, Gates has seen the physical struggles of aging adults. In his in-home hospice therapy, he focused on the patient and caregiver until the day came that only one remained; then it was time to turn his attention to the bereavement process.
“A lot of hospice work is with the patient who is progressing to death, but our work doesn’t stop when a person dies,” Gates says. “When someone moves on, the caregiver vacillates between remorse and relief. We shift to the family, helping them through the bereavement, especially two or three weeks after the funeral, when they’re alone. That’s especially important in the case of someone losing a spouse.”
For both the patient and caregiver, the hospice social worker is a listener, facilitator and advocate, Gates says, often posing the pertinent yet sensitive questions about estate planning and other end-of-life directives. While modern medicine can provide physical comfort like pain management, social workers like Gates offer emotional and spiritual support.
During an in-home visit, that support may take the form of talking about the past, taking down a letter to a family member far away or playing a quiet game of cribbage. All the while listening and observing intently.
“We’re there to buoy them up, to give them a sense of belonging and purpose,” says Gates, whose new career may focus on palliative care. “It’s important that they know that their life has meaning. And that they are not alone.
“There’s a great deal of satisfaction in helping people empower themselves. That’s what social work is all about. We’re not doing for them, but helping them help themselves.”
Gates says the experience also has taught him that one person can make a difference in people’s lives.
“I don’t have the patience to change policy, but I admire people who do. I need the short-term reinforcement that what I’m doing is making a difference.”
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