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Published on February 16, 2021

How to support a loved one who’s in the hospital

Virtual Visit

After the fifth straight day of asking my hospitalized girlfriend the same questions related to her health struggles, I began to ask one question of myself: Was I helping?

How many times could I ask how she was feeling? How many different ways could I encourage her when she was down? At what point would the phone calls that were meant to be reassuring become an unnecessary burden? What could I say, day after day, that would be uplifting and constructive?

These are not unique issues whenever a loved one is in the hospital. But they have become exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic when visitors are limited, and all one can seemingly do is make phone calls.

I know, I’ve been there, off and on, since last November. Over the past three months, my girlfriend has been in the hospital with a variety of non-COVID medical issues, followed by weeks in a rehab facility, going through it all without anyone being allowed to enter her room. This has presented unique challenges never before imagined on staying connected and offering support and comfort.

Let’s face it, a phone conversation doesn’t replace sitting in a hospital room next to your loved one, holding her hand, getting her a glass of water, if needed, or just staying silent but providing the patient with the comfort that you are there. A phone conversation is just that, a conversation, which means both parties must talk. That’s not always helpful when one of the parties is ill or in pain.

“A conversation can cause anxiety for some people,” said Deana Towns Kayajan, executive director of Patient & Family Experience at Cape Cod Healthcare.

So, I wondered, what is the best approach to this unprecedented situation? One thing, I learned, is not to assume that a daily phone call is always welcomed. Although the patient is stuck in bed, for the most part, that doesn’t mean a phone call isn’t an interruption. Your loved might be meeting with a doctor or a nurse, undergoing a test, eating lunch or perhaps sleeping.

Set a Consistent Schedule

That’s why it is important to set a consistent schedule for when you will call, Kayajan said.

“Make sure you ask if it’s a good time to talk, and make sure to tell them that they can call you anytime,” she said. “When a patient is in a vulnerable position and feels like they can’t do anything for themselves, they can feel like they are a bother. Reassure them that they are not.

“And before you hang up, set a time for when you will call next. It’s good for the patient to have that consistency. They will look forward to the call.”

It is still critically important to maintain a connection, for both the patient and the family member or friend, but how those connections are made have obviously changed.

“Try your best to understand what they may be feeling and experiencing. We all have a right to feel a certain way, including fearful and discouraged, and it’s okay to let them know. Saying things like “I understand why you may be fearful at a time like this” can reassure them that they are not alone and can help move them toward hope,” Kayajan said. “You still want to ask how they are doing, but the best thing you can do is to remind them that they are loved, and to let them know that they are being very well cared for. That keeps them connected. And talk about things that are meaningful to them, things that make them feel less like a patient and more like a human being.”

It could be telling the patient stories about their grandchildren, sending along their favorite music, even texting or emailing photos that will make them smile, she said. You could also send along a podcast. “Whatever you can do to bring a smile to their face and let them know you are thinking of them,” she added.

Kayajan suggests reading a book or the daily newspaper to the patient as a way to stay connected. “Sometimes, there is comfort for them in just hearing the voice of a person they love. If you’re reading something, it just goes on and the person doesn’t feel the need to respond.”

Be a Good Listener

There might also be times when the patient has plenty to say, and that’s when it is best to be a good listener, Kayajan said.

“Offer as much peace as you can, but also let them vent,” she said. “There are patients who just want to be heard, and sometimes we forget that. Give them that opportunity. If you spend extra time listening, you can almost always get to the heart at what’s bothering them.”

Of course, in these pandemic times, most people have become adept at virtual visits. Every unit at Cape Cod Hospital has an iPad that patients can use for virtual visits with family and friends via Facetime and Skype. Jane Johnson, executive director of Critical Care and Perioperative Service at Cape Cod Healthcare, said these visits have become increasingly popular, allowing the patient and their loved ones to not only hear a voice but see a face, making them all feel like they are in the room together.

“There have been times when people have gone on for two hours,” she said. “I’ve had patients tell me they like the idea of [virtual visits] because they can do it on their terms and for as long as they feel comfortable.”

Johnson also recommends dropping off poster boards filled with family photographs, along with cards and other personal items that remind the patient of better times. “Any family connection you make is important,” she said. Items for patients can be dropped off in the front lobby of the hospital.

Clearly, these are difficult and frustrating times. But there are many ways to offer support to a loved one who is hospitalized. All that is required is a bit of ingenuity.