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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