10 Tips for Visiting Someone Who is Sick
I have unfortunately been on both sides of this article. I have spent time visiting friends and family when they have been sick, but I have more often been the patient everyone is visiting. Many of the visits went very well, but unfortunately others didn’t go so well for them or me. Hopefully my mistakes or my tips from experience will help you.
Visiting someone who is sick isn’t always easy, but it can be an enjoyable time and it should primarily be a comfort for the patient.
Many family members and friends find it difficult to visit someone who is sick. If the person is in the hospital, it may be more difficult for some to visit because of past negative experiences they have had at a hospital. Many visitors are anxious or find it stressful to be around a patient because they are dealing with their own fears of sickness. It is natural to hesitate in seeing someone you love or care about, who is in pain or seriously ill. Unfortunately, many people end up not visiting, because they do not know what to do or say to help.
Most patients I have spoken to just want the company. They want to feel loved and thought about. They do not want to be forgotten, though they might be out of the ‘social loop’.
I know when I was sick and had visitors it was a welcome distraction from the reality of what was going on. It was nice to at least try to forget and feel ‘normal’ even for only a short time.
When visiting someone who is sick, here are some suggestions that may help both the visitor and the patient.
1. Before visiting the patient, phone ahead to let him or her know you are coming. That is just plain common sense. Your friend or loved one will appreciate you finding out a convenient time to visit. Some times a patient has had too many visitors, has gone through painful treatments or just needs to nap. If the person is sick at home and being cared for by a caregiver, knowing when you are coming may give that person a chance to run errands or plan for some personal time alone. At least it will give them a chance to tidy up the room or help the patient get ready for your visit. I know I have wished people had called first when I was receiving visitors, because I might not have been dressed appropriately and a robe or change of clothes would have made me more comfortable, etc.
The simple act of a phone call creates the anticipation of a visit, something to look forward to. Calling in advance also puts the patient in charge. Being sick often results in a forced passivity. When you phone and ask if it is all right to visit, the patient is able to exercise some control in whether they feel up to visitors at that time.
2. Do your research. If the person you are visiting is in a hospital or rehab facility, then call ahead to see when visiting hours are. Ask if there are any other restrictions. Some facilities do not allow children or pets. Find out if it is all right for the patient to receive flowers or food of any kind. You do not want to bring your friend’s favorite brand of chocolate, only to find out that they are on a special diet and can not eat it right now. Inquire as to what you are allowed to bring. Can the patient eat food brought in from the outside? Can she have flowers etc? Some patients are very sensitive to perfumes or smells, so check if this is the case and leave those types of things at home. The most important point here is to ask questions.
3. Don’t plan on a long visit. Hospital patients have a busy schedule and sick people often tire easily. It is better to visit briefly but more often, than to visit once for a long time. When the patient tires, leave courteously with a promise to return another time or to call. Stay long enough to put a smile on their face, but not too long as to see their smile tire. Most people would rather have many visits, then one long dragged out one.
This should also help to put the visitor at ease. If you plan on a short visit, you do not need to worry about what to say or how to ‘fill up’ time. A 15-20 minute visit is just long enough to say hello, catch up, help out and leave. You can play a game for 20 minutes, or take a walk. Stay as long as the patient wants.
4. Bring the patient a small gift. This is not about money spent- the gift can be something you made, like a card. Let’s face facts, we all like receiving gifts, especially when we are not feeling our best. A newspaper or magazine can reinforce a sense of connection to the outside world. Besides being pretty- flowers, plants or cards leave tangible evidence of the visit. I remember when I was in the hospital I spent hours looking at my ‘wall of cards’ and reminisced about who came to visit me. It always brought a smile to my face, even if it was days after the person left.
Bring something that can be a distraction after you have left. Crossword puzzle books, reading books, even lotto scratch off’s. Anything that they can easily do on their own. Many places do not allow visitors after certain hours, so your gift will help with the boredom at night and be a welcome relief.
Bring something that will help make the experience nicer. Blankets, new pajamas, slippers, new lotions, soaps, or a soft pillow can make the time spent in bed for a patient more enjoyable. Gifts like these will be much appreciated.
Ask nurses or caregivers if it is ok to give the patient food or treats. Bring the patient their favorite candy or snack. If they are having appetite trouble maybe a gift of their favorite food might help.
5. Have Fun. Bring an activity with you. Sometimes we learn the most about someone while doing something together. It takes the pressure off coming up with conversation, while providing a non-threatening atmosphere. The focus becomes the activity and not the person and their disability and that is refreshing. It could be a board game, craft activity, movie, or even food. If the individual has a computer, you could surf the net for helpful resources or community services. Bring the newspaper and talk about current events. Give her a manicure or fix her hair. Bring a friend or children to visit. Be creative.
Some of my best memories in the hospital were when my mom played Scrabble with me all night until I fell asleep. It was great to get my mind of being sick and it also was a great way for us to pass the time.
6. When visiting, help with concrete tasks. After getting the sick person’s consent; help by straightening the bed, watering plants, straightening up the room, or any other chore that helps the patient or makes their surroundings look well attended.
It also might be helpful to offer to do things in the ‘outside’ world for the patient. When we are sick, we do not have the energy, ability or time to do simple things, but quite often those are the very things we worry about not getting done. Picking up mail, helping go through bills, watering the lawn, or even cooking meals, can truly make someone’s day. What might seem like an easy task for you can really help someone who is too sick to do these things for themselves or their own family.
It is very hard not to be able to do for yourself. Many times when I am not feeling well, I might be too embarrassed to ask for help, but I am very happy to accept it when it is offered.
7. Don’t be afraid to sit in silence. As with any situation where we are trying to bring comfort and friendship to someone who is suffering, the primary statement we can make is not through any words we speak, but through our presence. Do not force conversation, but let it come naturally. Fight the need to fill up every bit of silence. Just being a good friend and making the effort to be there is enough.
If you can’t think of anything to talk about, feel free to simply say, I love you, I care and I am here for you if you need me. Those few simple words will mean more to the person then you will ever know, and will definitely be better then making up chatter.
8. Help the Helper. Besides being the patient, there is nothing harder then being the primary caregiver. Most times these are the people that are right there with the patient, often both day and night. The caregiver has the daunting task of trying to juggle the life outside and the life with the person who is sick. Usually they are going on little or no sleep and are filled with worry and concern for the one they love, while trying to show a strong face. Ask if you can help them in any way also. Offer to baby-sit kids, even for an hour, make dinner, or offer to order in, ask if they want you to go get a rental movie or if you can sit and talk with the patient while they shower or make phone calls, etc.
9. Prepare for when they come home. Depending on how long the patient is in the hospital, or depending how long the person has been sick, it might be hard to get back into the swing of a normal daily routine. Offer to help with laundry or help clean or dust so they come home to a less stale smelling place. Help clean out the fridge, or maybe help re-stock it before they get home. Open the windows and let some fresh air in. If they need help now to do things, offer to drive them to the store or doctor’s appointments. It is the little things that go a long way to make the patient feel back at home.
10. Do not forget about them the second they get better. Being sick gives you many different types of attention, whether you like it or not and the fact is that it can be very lonely when it all goes away. I have heard from many patients that the worst thing about being sick is when they started to feel better! That is when they were alone with no one offering to help or to lift their spirits. Still make visits, send cards or offer to help for the next few weeks during this transitional time. They might not need the same things, and it might not feel as ‘urgent’ but still visit. They need to feel loved now too. They need the strength to continue to feel better.
Do Something! All the tips listed above are to help you, but they are not ‘rules’. Do what your heart tells you to do. Do what you feel is best. It is never too late and no gesture is ever too small. If it is from you then it is just right. Do not let your fear, anxiety or busy schedule stop you from being there for someone who could really use it, and will appreciate it
The worst thing you can do for someone who is sick is nothing.