Let's be real - visiting the sick can be awkward, uncomfortable, and a bit frightening. What do we say? How long should we visit? What time is the best time to "pop in"? What if the person we are visiting is too sick or too tired to talk? Should I bring flowers or a gift?
I have visited hundreds of people in the hospital over the years. I have also cared for patients during visits from family members. I would like to share a few tips to help the visit go well for both the patient and the visitor. If you have a suggestion as well, be sure to leave it as a comment below.
1. Visit. Don't put it off another day, don't think about it, don't rationalize that the person doesn't want someone to visit. Get in the car, get on the train, board the bus, saddle up Ol' Paint, do what ever you have to do to get to the hospital or nursing home. Almost everyone who is ill or infirm wants to see loving faces expressing care and concern. Just do it.
2. Call ahead. If there are particular tests scheduled, the patient is beat from a busy day of blood draws or x-rays, or he's just too sick for a visit you give the patient the opportunity to maintain some sense of control in an environment that can seem completely OUT of control. Conversely, if you are welcomed, the patient now has the happy task of anticipating your arrival, which prolongs the joy of the visit.
3. Always knock before entering the room. This is out of respect for the patients privacy. There is nothing more embarrassing than welcoming visitors while trying to conceal a full bedpan you've been calling the nurse to remove. Again, it is about giving the patient a sense of control.
4. Wash your hands. This, again, shows respect for the patient by recognizing the need for cleanliness and to limit exposure to germs.
5. Be encouraging and upbeat. This isn't the time to talk about your horrid experience in that particular hospital, the people you know who died of the surgery the patient had, or to question whether the doctor is doing all he or she should. Nor is this the time to bring bad news or tales of your own poor health. I have listened countless times to visitors spin terrifying yarns of their last colonoscopy or other such procedure. Not the venue. The visit should be edifying. Tell good news, talk about your kids or grandkids, and share your funny stories. Keep 'em smilin'!
6. Don't pry. If the patient wants to talk about their illness, listen attentively and try not to ask questions that are too personal or specific. Concentrate on feelings; "How are you handling that?" or "how does that make you feel?". If the patient doesn't want to talk, respect that. You can talk about the squirrels eating your tulip bulbs. Or, just be silent.
7. Keep the visit relatively short. Visits for the sick can be tiring. Perhaps Aunt Clara is coming in an hour. Perhaps the nurse is coming with the evening enema. Who knows. Half an hour is more than sufficient most of the time; read the patients body language. Usually you can tell when someone's had enough.
8. Bring a practical little gift. A rosary, a holy card, a small plant, something to read...anything to help the patient feel loved and cared for. Cards are wonderful - I dare you to walk in any patients room where the cards aren't proudly displayed. It is a pleasant keepsake of your visit and a reminder of your care and concern.
9. Don't shy away from visiting at meal times. Meals are family affairs, and when eating alone it intensifies the feeling of isolation. Most people are quite comfortable eating and talking - we do it in restaurants and at the dinner table every day! Offer to get something the patient enjoys eating, as long as it's okay with the nursing staff. Bringing a pastry heart or a Frappacino the patient has been craving is a personal touch that won't go unappreciated.
10. Pray. Offer to pray with the patient. If he or she isn't the kind that is comfortable with that, let them know that you are offering prayers at home, mass, Eucharistic adoration, etc. Mass cards are awesome ideas. I know I always feel better when the Carmelites are praying for me. Ask if you can "put their name on our prayer chain", or if they would like their pastor to know about their illness. If they aren't comfortable with that, respect their wishes.
I hope these tips have been of some help. There are many other resources on the web with similar tips, and many that go in-depth; check them out. As a nurse of many years, I emphatically believe that those who are visited when ill are more at peace, recover quicker, and tolerate their stay much better. God will bless you both with grace and peace.
St. Camillus, you recognized that the sick and dying were often left alone and suffered greatly in their isolation, so you mobilized the faithful to serve and comfort the ill. Help us to recognize that when a member of the body of Christ is ill we, too, suffer. Pray that we may have the courage and compassion to reach out to those who are sick and infirm. We ask all this in the name of the Merciful Jesus. Amen.