Preparing for your visit with someone in hospice care

Visiting someone who is dying or critically ill is an experience many of us will have in the course of our lives. Whether your visit is to be in the person’s home, a hospice or a hospital, there are a few rules of thumb to guide your time together so that it can be mutually satisfying.

This post introduces some of the basics.

1. Call ahead. Find out what prime visiting times might be. You may want to contact family for guidance about the timing and length of your visit. If you are not certain and the person is very weak, plan for 15 minutes—a time frame you can alter if the person you are visiting encourages it.

2. Get comfortable. Once there, take off your coat if you have one, move a chair in close and sit so that your eyes on the same level as the person you are visiting. You can signal a sincere interest in the person you visit just by making eye contact at their level.

3. Cooperate with medical staff. If medical personnel or family interrupt your visit to give meds or take vital signs, ask outright whether or not you should leave, then act upon their direction.

4. Show appropriate affection. If kissing, hugging, or holding hands have been part of your relationship in the past, do include them in your visit. If such gestures have not been part of your relationship previously, this may not be the time to introduce them for the first time.  If you are uncertain, ask: “I’d like to hold your hand. Is that okay?”

5. Offer casual conversation. Offering information about mutual friends, the weather, or other casual matters may be very much appreciated. Let your conversation be as natural as possible and remember that appropriate humour can be good medicine. Try to take your lead from the person with whom you are visiting.

6. Sometimes silence is golden. Not every visit needs to be filled with words. Sometimes it is enough just to sit quietly with a friend or loved one, or perhaps listen to music together. Someone who is very weak or medicated may take time to shape their responses so do your best to relax and wait.

7. Leave with a promise if you can. If you can honestly promise that you will be thinking of or praying for your friend, or that you will return to visit again, please say so. This can be comforting and can help the person you are visiting to retain a sense of hope. If you aren’t sure you will be able to keep such a promise, don’t make it.

Follow these general guidelines, prepare to listen and be yourself: your visit will have meaning and make a difference.

Linda Watson is a writer and former pastoral and supportive care professional. She is the author of Facing Death: A Companion in Words and Images and blogs at Let’s talk about it.

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  • Anonymous

    I thought this was a quick and easy one-pager for family or
    friends who want to know, “What am I supposed to say?”  I think part of the discomfort is that
    visitors focus on the disease and the dying process (which can be rather
    uncomfortable) rather than focusing on the person and celebrating a life (e.g., the life and experiences they shared that brought them together and gave them joy).  It’s a matter of focus.  While early palliative care intervention may actually prolong life (maintaining a heart beat) as demonstrated in an August 2010 article in New England Journal of Medicine regarding patients with metastatic lung cancer, the goal of Hospice is to prolong “living” (the quality of life  that makes being alive worth it).

  • lfwatson

    Yes, the value of doing Life Review in one form or another is huge, as
    is the sharing in laughter in the moment or listening to music with
    meaning to everyone there. The present moment and its resonance, the
    past and its richness: these are part of the living we want quality to
    surround at the end of life. There is also, however, the fact of the
    ending itself that deserves/needs attention. I’d be interested to learn
    what you think of the other two posts in this series which you can find
    at http://talkaboutdeath.net  But you are right–I think I now need to
    do a series of posts on enriching the days and hours at the end of life
    in creative, meaningful ways. My book, Facing Death: A Companion in
    Words and Images does keep a better balance of beauty and poetry,
    realism and practicalities.

  • Anonymous

    Agreed that this is one time that one needs to review and change our way of dealing with the end of life. It is difficult to face it and put on a brave face when visiting someone in this condition. However, I feel that with good hospice care, much of this allayed. I have been to the hospice facility in our hospital and have seen the sense of peace these patients radiate. They have expressed their thanks to me, grateful for the nursing care they receive, and thankful for the relief of pain the medicines give them, as well as for the visits not only of their families, but also for friends and others who they don’t know but come to visit. I wish there would be more hospice facilities worldwide. 
    CBSGMontaner

  • http://www.practitionersolutions.com Niamh van Meines

    Overcoming personal discomfort with being present and observing a person declining or going through the dying phase can be very challenging. One of the ways to prepare can include having “tools” that you can use to provide comfort. For parents, it may be as familiar as rubbing a childs belly, or touching a hand, singing and praying. Preparing for a visit to someone in hospice may include remembering to use these skills. From my observations of caregivers around dying people, I have seen where the need to be useful and to be doing something is strong. Often healthcare practitioners give caregivers tasks to help alleviate some of the distress. Some caregivers resort to cooking, a natural and understandable expression of love, however, the dying are not able to eat. Learning to do a simple hand massage can be very effective in helping visitors and caregivers to alleviate the distress they feel, the need to do something & provide a meaningful connection. I recently put this idea to paper, with Barbara Goldschmidt in a simple hand massage protocol for caregivers available here: http://www.jkp.com/catalogue/book/9781848190733 and recommend it to those who are routinely caring for people who are expected to die. It can be transformational.

    Thanks for providing these guidelines.