The Witherell’s Social Workers: A Team That (Literally) Does it All!
Elaine Conklin, Justine Vaccaro, Wendy Laychak

The Witherell’s Social Workers: A Team That (Literally) Does it All!

The job of a social worker in a skilled nursing facility is challenging and complex. It generally involves overseeing the psycho-social well-being of hundreds of seniors, while also supporting family members before, during, and after the transition of a loved one to long-term care. During the last year, however, the pandemic brought new challenges: health issues, stress, and family visitation restrictions that stretched social work teams even more.

Fortunately for residents and families at the Witherell, our social work team is top notch. Not only do they consistently manage the myriad issues that arise on a daily basis—but they rose to the challenges of the past year and, as a result, our residents are thriving.

Here, we had an opportunity to check-in with our team:  Justine Vaccaro, LMSW, director of Social Work, who is currently in her 12th year of service here. Working alongside Justine is Elaine Conklin, LMSW, and Wendy Laychak, LMSW.

Q: What do the Witherell’s social workers do?

A: I think the question becomes what don’t we do?! Our main function is to monitor residents’ psycho-social well-being. We assist with adjustment to the long-term care setting, provide end of life counseling as well as grief counseling, complete Quality Assessment audits, respond when residents need help or support (we even help put on sweaters when someone feels cold!), and provide education to staff, family, and residents. While some of these things might seem trivial, they can mean the world to a resident.

Q: What are the most common issues seniors face in short-term, long term, or Memory Care?

A: The most common issues facing seniors in skilled nursing are situational depression over health status and limitations, a desire to return home when it would not be safe to do so, and a feeling that they have lost their independence.  What we do to help residents through these challenges is to encourage them to be as independent as possible.  We utilize a multi-disciplinary approach guided by person-centered care to support our residents.

Q: What are the most common issues family members face when a loved one is in a skilled nursing facility?

It’s not uncommon for family members to feel guilty about  placing a loved one in a nursing home. Many also experience anxiety surrounding whether their loved ones’ needs are being met.  As social workers, we provide education, support, and reassurance to families in a variety of ways to offer peace of mind. When I first began my career in long-term care, I was told by a staff member that it takes a new resident three months to acclimate, but it takes family members about six months. I do believe that is pretty accurate.

Q: What new challenges and issues did the COVID pandemic create?

The pandemic has been stressful for everyone, but was especially difficult on nursing home residents and their families. The necessary restrictions on visitation and new health protocols created a sense of isolation which lowered the spirits of some residents. Our entire team got to work from day one to find new ways to entertain and support our residents. During the early days of the pandemic, we worked 7 days a week and supported families from 7am to 10pm on many days because we were an important link to their loved ones. While nothing replaces in-person contact, we were able to offer video calls initially and eventually outside pod visits. At the end of the day, this pandemic took its toll on everyone, but I feel that we did our best to navigate the unknown, while trying to support everyone and juggle essential state regulations and guidelines.

Q: What advice to you have for family members who are considering skilled nursing for their loved one?

It’s a good idea to take a tour of the facility on off hours to get a feel for the atmosphere, and speak to the staff.  If time and circumstances allow, explore all of your options so that when you decide on a facility, you’ve made an educated decision.

Q: What is essential to help seniors thrive in a facility like the Witherell? 

The most important thing is to treat each resident as an individual while prompting self-determination.

Q: What is unique about the team at the Witherell? 

We work in an environment that we love and that shows in how we interact with our residents, their loved ones, and each other. When you work with staff that enjoy each other’s company, that comes through when you’re caring for the residents.



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