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Date ArticleType
3/14/2016 Other
Why I Became a Social Worker

by Katie Niehoff, IHCA/INCAL Director of and Member Services and Licensed Social Worker 

March is National Social Work month so it is only fitting that I reflect back on my journey and career in Social Work.  I guess it started when I was 15 years old and began working as a Dietary Aide in my hometown’s nursing home.  When you are from a small rural farming town and don’t have a driver’s license yet, your work options are quite limited.  I thought, sure I can wash dishes, pour drinks and scoop out pudding cups, but what I didn’t realize at the time, was that those residents changed my life.  I remember Mr. Jones (names changed) always sitting at the door looking for his car and asking to go for a drive.  Linda talking to people who were not there and the day Betty stood in the kitchen doorway, gave her hips a shake, her brief fell down, she stepped out of it and turned around and walked away!  I thought these people were crazy…I did not know they had Alzheimer’s Disease or Dementia or even what that was. 

When I started college, my major was listed as “undecided.”  I took a career test at the Career Center and it said I would be good in a helping profession like Psychology, Sociology or Social Work.  Not knowing much about Social Work, I took an introductory class and got very lucky!  My professor at Ball State, Dr. Dolon, was a geriatric social worker.  I immediately became fascinated with the geriatric population, specifically those with Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia.  Those residents in my hometown nursing home weren’t crazy, they had a disease.  After college, I went straight on to get my Master’s Degree. I attended Washington University in St. Louis. Graduate school is where I felt my niche for geriatrics and dementia care became prevalent. My first job after graduate school was with a nursing home company that had 3 facilities.  As the Social Service Director and Consultant, I oversaw the social services departments and admissions while also maintaining a large patient caseload.  During those 5 years, I learned something every day from my dementia residents.  I also taught Social Work and Aging at IU and took social work interns during this time and my students would often ask “how do you know what to do?  What to say to them?”  My answer was always the same, “trial and error, active listening, thinking outside the box, jump feet first into their world, their reality.”  It wasn’t always easy or fun but it was never boring! 

While I cared for all my residents, I did have my favorites. One was a gentleman on the memory care unit and I was his “little girl”.  It definitely was a sad night when the nurse called me at home to tell he passed away suddenly.  Some of our residents don’t have family or visitors.  We become their surrogate families and they become an important part of our lives. 

After my 5 years there, I took a short hiatus and worked for a geriatric care management company. Going from the noise and hustle and bustle of the nursing home to an office setting was quite a change! I soon realized that I missed dementia residents hanging out in my office and the great conversations we had.  I did a switch and went to assisted living where I managed a memory care unit. My administrator once asked me what me and an Alzheimer’s resident were talking about, as we were laughing and talking but the conversation made no sense.  I told him, I had no idea!  He said he never would have guessed that I did not know what she was saying because I so engaged with her. Just because their words don’t make sense, doesn’t mean we can’t be engaged, empathic and in the moment. 

Aside from all the dementia folks I have had the pleasure of working with, I also greatly treasure my grandparents and have fond memories of them. I have one grandmother left and I talk to her at least once a week if not more. Making her laugh is one the highlights of my life!  My professional and personal goal in working with geriatrics has always been “if I’ve made them happy and comfortable before they die, then I have done my job.” 

Becoming a geriatric social worker has been one of the best decisions and most rewarding of my life.  Happy Social Work to all my fellow Social Workers!!