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A Reflection on Social Work During the COVID-19 Pandemic

September 15, 2021
Reflections and Opportunities in the Time of COVID-19, with photo of Joyce Roberson-Steele

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Joyce Roberson-Steele, LMSW and third year PhD candidate at Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work, found herself helping others in a way that she had not envisioned at the outset of the pandemic. Roberson-Steele, who has worked in the field of gerontology as a manager for the City of New York for more than 14 years, details her experience as a social worker and New York City resident during the early months of the pandemic.

COVID-19 Pandemic Changes Everything

The COVID-19 pandemic struck everyone in New York City, like me, hard. It was an unexpected change to our lives that swept in and shook us to the core. It pushed us out of our routines and removed the comfort of the security we took for granted. Our NYC fast-paced lifestyle was suddenly called to a halt.

As a social worker and a current doctoral student, I conversed with my peers and pondered how to soothe the worry and unrest that we and our clients faced. We wanted to do what we always do during a crisis and return ourselves from painful upheaval to normal functioning. I have long accepted the complexity of navigating the duty to my profession, to my family and to those that I pledged as a social worker to help navigate through systems of bureaucracy in order to respond to food insecurity and healthcare disparities. The difference was, now, I was in a place where I had similar needs to those of my clients.

COVID-19’s Impact on Gerontological Social Work

As a gerontological social worker, I could not help but focus on how the pandemic affected the older population. Pre-COVID-19, I was usually able to solve problems, but the pandemic left every day with uncertainty I had no control over. Pre-pandemic, I spent my days conversing with older adults to make sure they did not live in isolation. I educated them and their caregivers on the importance of socialization and communication. The COVID-19 pandemic made me feel as if I were a record on a turntable, spinning backwards. Every professional suggestion I was accustomed to providing was no longer appropriate for the times. And it was all a little too personal, too.

I knew this crisis really upset my dad. He usually had a great deal of energy and walked his grandchildren to school some days for exercise. We live together with four generations helping each other and co-existing in harmony. Pre-COVID-19, he frequented the local stores in the Stuyvesant Heights area of Brooklyn, where he lived for 87 years. He is one of the guys who likes to stand around with the other men in his age group and talk about old times. Now, we are telling him to not leave the house. I would check in with him in person just to ensure he was all right, but I felt helpless and hopeless as a daughter and as a social worker.

An Unexpected Opportunity to Help

One morning, my dad asked me to check in on one of his good buddies from the neighborhood, “Mr. Al.” He said Mr. Al was answering his phone but not sounding like himself. I wondered if Mr. Al needed food, but my dad said that wouldn’t be necessary because Mr. Al was receiving Meals on Wheels and donations from the local church. Mr. Al is very proud and doesn’t accept help easily.

At first, Mr. Al did not seem interested in my help. But then my dad told Mr. Al that I helped him complete his census form, and suggested that Mr. Al allow me to help him with the same. Mr. Al was skeptical about the census. He told me that he doesn’t like giving out his personal information, and that completing the census form would not make a difference. I reassured him that the census is extremely important and determines the much-needed funding that comes to our community, like that funding for the Meals on Wheels he currently uses. I reassured him that the information he was providing would not be harmful to him in any way. Our conversation became intensely political, as Mr. Al expressed his distrust in the current government. He eventually allowed me to help him complete the form. It was rewarding to know that I was able to help Mr. Al view his participation in a new way.

While we were at Mr. Al’s, my husband cleaned the ceiling fan. After the census form was finalized, we helped him shred some extra mail and documents that were lying around. While going through a pile of papers, Mr. Al passed me an envelope that he was not so sure about. It was an application for an absentee ballot for the upcoming New York State primary election. I suggested to Mr. Al that he complete this. Once again, he was hesitant, because he did not trust the mail. He traditionally voted in person. I explained that he didn’t have to complete the absentee ballot once he got it, but it would be good to have it, in case the lines at the polls are long or it is not safe to wait in line the day of the primary. I told Mr. Al that I had helped my dad fill out the same form. So, we completed that form together, too. Later that evening, Mr. Al called my dad, complimenting me and thanking my dad for “loaning out his daughter.”

What began as a simple visit to appease my father’s concern for his friend turned out to be one of accomplishment and much-needed interpersonal bonding. I grew up listening to men like my dad and Mr. Al give advice and instructions on the importance of voting and having a voice in your community. Now, our roles are reversed, and I am tasked with the responsibility to ensure that the older adults in my life are aware of their options relating to safety during COVID-19, voting and the census response.

Make a Difference with a Master’s in Social Work

Like my fellow social workers, I joined this profession to make a significant difference in this world. Helping older men complete their census forms and exercise their right to vote was not how I had envisioned my contribution to society during the pandemic. I expected to be at the church passing out food or providing grief counseling to families of COVID-19 victims. But instead, I had the honor of not only repaying those jewels of knowledge back to my dad and his friend, but using my social work skills as a gift to others in a time of unprecedented crisis.

Through the Master of Social Work (MSW) online program offered by the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, you will graduate with the clinical education and field-based knowledge to build lasting social change during periods of calm and crisis. Learn more about where you can take your career in social work with our online degree program.