Aeschylus wrote: "What is there more kindly than the feeling between host and guest?"
The hospital stay is often a time of great stress for patients and their families alike. Recently, President Obama issued a directive for the creation of rules ensuring that hospitals protect the rights of patients to designate visitors, stating in part: "There are few moments in our lives that call for greater compassion and companionship than when a loved one is admitted to the hospital." While the President's comments have been widely debated, his underlying sentiment emphasizes the importance of reducing stress in a hospital setting for all those involved.
Let's face it, no one wants to be in a hospital. Whether visiting a loved one or being visited yourself, the hospital stay poses a unique set of problems in that the presence of illness tends to tilt the scales of any relationship. Lying in a hospital bed surrounded by tubes and monitors, the patient is in a vulnerable state both mentally and physically. Separated from his or her natural environment, the patient is not only in unfamiliar territory but in the process of coming to grips with the fact that he or she is ill. Such a one-two punch often forces patients into crisis mode, leaving them feeling frightened and confused. In such a situation, the mere sight of a loved one is often enough to greatly reduce stress levels by assuring them that they are not alone in the situation.
But this burden must go somewhere, and it usually makes its way to the shoulders of the loved ones who come to visit. Family members, too, must navigate the shifting roles brought on by illness, as the physical and emotional toll of caring for a sick loved one can have a dramatic effect on everyday life. Such seemingly simple tasks as eating healthy, getting enough sleep, and addressing work responsibilities and personal commitments often fall by the wayside as time is sacrificed for the good of the patient. To make matters worse, stress is often increased by having to wrestle with concerns about the patient's care, complex medical information, financial anxiety, questions of insurance and the possibility of long term issues after the patient's discharge.
As difficult as it may be for people to watch a family member battle illness, for some groups the emotional distress brought about by grief or concern is further compounded by the struggle they must undertake to simply gain admittance to see their loved one. Though the President's recent directive is a step in the right direction, the rights of gays, lesbians and unmarried partners both to visit and make decisions with respect to their loved ones' care have historically fallen short, forcing them to watch from the sidelines as the patient battles his or her disease without the support of the partner. In addition, the elderly, who are often balancing the aforementioned stressors with additional feelings of grief and impending loss, must allow for issues deriving from potentially weakened immune systems, limited mobility and lapses in cognition, factors which can impede their ability to offer support. Children, too, can have trouble when trying to see those closest to them, as many hospitals have strict regulations prohibiting visitation by those under seventeen.
In the event that you are allowed to visit your loved one, good communication skills and a positive outlook are essential when providing comfort. The stress level of a patient can be either reduced or increased by the visitor, so it is important to remember that ultimately the needs of the patient come first. Following are guidelines to assist the family member so that his or her visit serves to calm the patient, rather than add to an already stressful situation.
● Ask permission to visit. While many patients enjoy company, some do not like for others to see them infirm or tired, or simply do not feel up to having guests. If you suspect you are intruding, politely ask if another day would suit them better. The key is to let the patient know that you are thinking about them.
● Gauge the effect of your visit. A family illness can sometimes force interaction between estranged members. However, this is no time to address old wounds. What matters now is to offer support in a time of need.
● Stay positive. Though your loved one's hospital stay may be taking its toll on you, it is important to keep the patient's thoughts on the task of getting better. Complaining about the situation or introducing feelings of guilt or resentment will only increase the overall stress level.
● Keep your visit short. No matter how much your loved one may enjoy your company, he or she needs plenty of rest. The fact that you have taken the time to see them is what matters, not the length of your visit. The simple act of seeing a friendly face can work wonders.
● Don't visit when you are ill. Though you'd like to show your support, visiting a loved one while sick is never a good idea. Patients in hospitals often have compromised immune systems which can cause additional complications during treatment. Instead, feel free to call or write until you are feeling better and are no longer contagious.
● Participate in the treatment. Should your loved one approve, it may be a good idea to get involved in the process by familiarizing yourself with the patient's condition, symptoms, and outlook. You may also want to introduce yourself to all related medical staff. This is a great way to remind your loved one that he or she is not alone, and that someone who cares is looking out for their best interest.
● Take care of yourself. While your primary focus may be on your loved one, it is important to note that you cannot be of help to him or her if you get sick yourself. Spend a few minutes every day doing something you enjoy, and try to eat well and get as much sleep as possible. The stronger you remain during this experience, the more you will be able to provide your loved one with the support he or she needs during this trying time.
This Emotional Life is a two-year campaign to foster awareness, connections and solutions around emotional wellness. Join our community at www.pbs.org/thisemotionallife.