The face of modern social problems has changed, and old stereotypes aren’t holding up. Homelessness, for example, no longer looks like it did a decade or two ago. Service providers at Miracle Hill, a leading agency offering help to homeless people in South Carolina, reported their homeless population has grown well beyond the traditional image of the middle-aged male. Today’s homeless people include more families, women, children, senior adults, and people with mental illnesses. Social workers who treat their clients based on generalizations will find their work stymied.
In the face of changing social, economic, and demographic landscapes, how will the field of social work evolve to meet these new needs, and how will it maximize creative opportunities? Many leaders in the field believe the answers to those questions lie in a person-centered approach in social work.
What Is A Person-Centered Approach in Social Work?
Person-centered care is not unique to social work; several occupations benefit from this practice, including nurses, physical therapists, and speech and language pathologists, among many others. Like those professions, social workers can reframe their occupation in person-centered terms to meet the unique needs of their individual clients.
An article published in the Journal of Gerontological Social Work called person-centered care the “benchmark” for quality care, particularly in marginalized populations such as older adults. It merges traditional social work practices with a renewed focus on personhood, using the relationship between the care provider and the recipient as the determining factor in making recommendations for aid. Taking a person-centered planning approach literally might mean asking, “If I were the patient, what would I want my care, planning, or environment to be?” and then developing a care plan from that orientation. This approach differs from the longstanding idea in social work that what works for one person in a typical situation could be standardized as an approach for all people facing similar situations.
Many of the ideas within person-centered social work emerged from Carl Rogers, a psychotherapist who authored the book “Becoming a Person.” Rogers’ research and its applications focused on helping his patients become their authentic selves rather than a reflection of their society. Social workers applied Rogers’ theories and insights to their work and began to emphasize helping clients develop as individuals rather than as reflections of their social subset. This new approach relies on a social worker’s highly developed sense of empathy since person-centered care emerges from the worker’s ability to put themselves in the other’s place.
Examples of Person-Centered Care
Examples of a person-centered approach to social work vary depending upon the type of client served.
- Mrs. Webb is a 74-year-old with mild dementia who lives with her son and maintains her own room and bathroom. She is still able to perform many tasks with minor assistance, such as cooking and personal care. Taking a person-centered approach, a social worker would likely recommend home healthcare for Mrs. Webb and plan to reassess her program and assistance needs as the disease progresses.
- Mr. Watson is a 69-year-old man who suffered a massive stroke two years ago and lives in a personal care facility. He is a religious man, so a social worker would take a person-centered approach by respecting his right to spiritual development, including participation in worship services.
- Mr. Shoemaker is a 52-year-old man who lives with his dog in a car. He recently accepted a job as a dishwasher but cannot save enough money to make first and last month’s payments to a landlord. A person-centered social worker may help him connect with a housing-first provider to move him from his car into an appropriate housing situation that would accept his dog, too.
BENEFITS FOR THE PROVIDER
- Improves clinical outcomes. According to a study published in the Chinese Journal of Nursing, a person-centered approach improves clinical outcomes for a variety of illnesses, probably due to the clients being more involved in their medical treatment.
- Increases staff morale. Social workers tend to feel less exhausted and more accomplished when they perceive themselves as helping a client achieve a personal goal.
- Creates a partnership between worker and client. By focusing on the person, this approach makes clients and social workers partners in improving the client’s situation rather than establishing the power dynamic of a traditional relationship.
BENEFITS FOR THE CLIENT
- Focus on unique interests and preferences. Clients will nearly always appreciate a plan that includes their interests in art, gardening, cooking, spirituality, reading, or another hobby.
- Improved treatment or life care plan. By involving the client, the worker can identify the treatments or life care approaches that would work best for the individual.
As noted in The Benefits and Barriers to Person-Centered Planning for Adults with Developmental Disabilities, “The concept of Person-Centered Planning (PCP) values autonomy, respect, relationships, inclusion, quality of life, and self-determination for people.” Based on these values, a person-centered approach to social work benefits both the worker and the client.