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Q: Recently, several people I know were all in the hospital at the same time. It was so stressful trying to schedule all of those visits. Does it send an uncaring message when you don’t visit someone in the hospital?

A: The need we often feel to visit loved ones in the hospital stems from a belief fostered through family values over decades. Many of us were raised under this caring ideology that obliges us to make such visits. And yet given the way hospital care has changed over the years, it’s worth rethinking the practicality and the effectiveness of this tradition.

To begin with, the primary reason patients are admitted to a hospital is so that they can receive medical attention and get relief from pain and symptoms. Given these goals, if someone is in the hospital for only two to three days, there generally isn’t a lot of time for entertaining visitors. The hospital staff has schedules that must be adhered to and protocols that must be carried out, resulting in hectic days for many patients. One of the most common complaints I hear from patients is that they never get any rest while in the hospital and they go home more exhausted than when they were admitted.

So before you rush to make a hospital visit, here are some things to consider:

  • Find out if there is a contact person or primary caregiver and communicate with that person rather than with the patient.
  • Ask the contact person these questions: Why was the patient admitted? Any idea how long he or she will be hospitalized? Is it a private or a shared room? When are the visiting hours and mealtimes? Does the patient want visitors?
  • If the answers to these questions indicate that it might not be realistically beneficial to make a visit, or if the caregiver suggests that a visit is not necessary, heed that advice. Don’t assume that you know better or that it will be “different” if you go.

Next, be honest with yourself about these questions:

  • Do you really want to make this visit, or does it feel like an obligation?
  • Are you visiting in order to make yourself feel better?
  • How do you really feel about being in a hospital?
  • What is your current stress level?

If you’re visiting merely out of obligation or guilt, that’s not a good reason to visit. If you’re uncomfortable with medical environments or are stressed out yourself, you can actually do more harm than good to the person you’re visiting. When people are sick, they are more vulnerable and more sensitive to their surroundings and often pick up on negative feelings regardless of how well we may try to mask them. You want to ensure that you are not a source of stress or worry to the hospitalized person, so self-assess honestly.

Once you’re sure that a visit would be beneficial, here are some guidelines that can help you make a positive and effective impact with your presence:

  • Don’t arrive unannounced; patients get unannounced visits around the clock.
  • Don’t plan to stay a long time. Offer to leave shortly so that the patient doesn’t have to ask you.
  • Do turn off your phone and refrain from texting. If you’re going to visit someone, be fully present.
  • Don’t assume that it’s okay to bring flowers, balloons, or food. Each hospital and patient is different, so ask about the hospital’s rules and what the patient needs.
  • Do ask, “Do you need anything?” If the answer is no, offer practical suggestions such as slippers or socks, a comfy blanket or pillow, or a light sweater; or offer to lend an electronic book device or portable DVD player.
  • Do refrain from comments like, “You look great,” “Much better than I thought,” and “Everything is going to be fine.” Patients are very sensitive to placating comments.
  • Do encourage the person to vent and purge: ask about his or her concerns and feelings; expressing one’s feelings facilitates the healing process.
  • Don’t tell stories about other people who have had the same illness. Patients deserve to feel that their experiences are unique, regardless of their diagnosis.
  • Do bring some news from the outside world. Being in the hospital can foster feelings of isolation.
  • Don’t complain about what’s going on in your life; remember whom the visit is about.
  • Do offer to take the patient for a walk to the common room or around the halls if he or she is able to ambulate safely.
  • Do offer to read aloud. Being read to can be very comforting to someone who’s feeling too tired to read for him- or herself.

Last, it’s good practice to take a moment before the visit to refocus, let go of whatever else is on your mind, and enter the room acutely aware of why you are there. Patients relate that the most comforting visits are from those who are mindful, genuine, and concerned.

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Q: Are there other things—beyond making a hospital visit—that I can do as a concerned friend or family member to show that I care? How else can I be of help?

A: If the patient does not want visitors, or if a visit is just not practical, there are several other ways to demonstrate that you care, which can often be more helpful to a patient than an in-person visit.

Here are a few suggestions offered by my former clients:

  • Offer to be a contact person and pass on updates to friends, family, and co-workers via phone calls or e-mails.
  • Organize a group card or group e-mail that shows the patient that many people are concerned.
  • Find out what else you can do in the “outside world” that might be helpful—run some errands, check the mail, water plants, or attend to a pet, for example.
  • Offer to visit or assist the primary caregiver, other family members, or children.
  • Order a movie, book, gift basket, or other treat and send it to the patient’s home so that it will be there when he or she returns from the hospital.
  • Find out when the patient expects to be discharged and do something for the homecoming—cut the lawn, wash the car, prepare a meal, or attend to other household tasks.
  • Create a “save the date” for when the patient is discharged and plan something fun.
  • Don’t forget the patient after he or she returns home; this is often when people recuperating really need and appreciate company the most.
  • If distance or time prevents you from visiting the patient at home, buy or make several “get well” or “thinking of you” cards and send one every so often; actual greeting cards arriving in the mail convey a personal touch very different from electronic forms of communication.

Q: During my recent hospital stay, I experienced a surprising amount of stress surrounding family, friends, and visitors. Are there things that patients can do themselves to prevent the unintentional emotional strain that is sometimes caused by those who care?

A: When you are already compromised by an illness or a hospitalization, minimizing stress is crucial to the healing process. As a general rule, one of the most important yet simple things an individual can do to reduce emotional stress is to practice open and honest communication.

Being hospitalized renders us vulnerable, an uncomfortable state for almost everyone. The bottom line is, no matter how strong or independent you may be, you will need help—and those who care about you want to help—and yet miscommunication surrounding helping can cause many interpersonal conflicts. So, as the patient it’s important that you assess your feelings about asking for and accepting help.

If you are accustomed to reaching out and asking for what you need, you are quite fortunate. If you are not accustomed to asking for and accepting help, there are still ways your needs can be met.

Here are a few guidelines to help facilitate communication, reduce stress, and avoid emotional conflicts:

  • If you are uncomfortable calling others and asking for help directly, maybe an e‑mail or text message would be easier for you.
  • If you have an especially close friend or family member, solicit his or her help in asking for you.
  • Regardless of how you relate what you need and what you don’t need, be honest with yourself and others. You do a disservice to yourself and those around you when you are not completely truthful.
  • Instead of worrying about what others might be thinking, conserve your energy for your primary goal: healing and recuperating.
  • Remember, it really is about you when you’re hospitalized; you are the patient!
  • Don’t be afraid to say no to anything that might increase your stress, including visitors, phone calls, flowers, gifts, or anything else that you truly do not want.
  • If you do want visitors, make sure they know to ask you before visiting. This allows you to manage who visits and when.
  • Decide what will be the best way for you to receive communications (cell phone, hospital phone, e-mail, or text messages) and let everyone know that this is your preference.
  • Put an “out-of-the-office” notification on your e-mail account with a return date that extends beyond your hospital stay; this way people know not to expect a prompt reply.
  • Choose a point person to run interference for you. If you’re comfortable giving that person access to your e-mail, he or she can also send out group updates to your designated contacts.
  • Also assign a point person from your job to update your co-workers.
  • Find out when meals are served, when the doctors do rounds, and when any procedures might be scheduled so that you can manage your visiting hours with minimal interruptions.
  • Keep a list of things you would like people to bring. It’s much easier to refer to a list when people ask if you need anything, and it can prevent people from bringing things you don’t want or need.
  • Make a comprehensive list of things you will need when you return home. That list will serve as a great resource for alternative suggestions of ways people can help if you would prefer not to receive visitors or if your loved ones are unable to visit.