When it comes to being an in-patient, as well as being there for a physical reason, there are often other factors going on for people. Being a regular recurring hospital ‘inmate’ for all of my life, here are a few points to remember when someone is staying in hospital. For me, the number one stress is homesickness. Now, let’s look at the other main factors.
Loss of Control
It’s not only the obvious and sometimes invasive or unpleasant procedures that you don’t have control over. Whilst you are being assessed or investigated, things can feel scary and uncertain. Add on top of that the fact that you can’t always choose when and what you eat or drink, what you wear; it’s often a hospital gown and jewellery might be removed, when you can shower or use the toilet; you might need to wait for assistance or they might all be occupied. There are also other things out of your control: When and what you can watch on tv, when you sleep and wake (due to noise or monitoring), lack of privacy… So many things are no longer in your control, things we take for granted when at home. You lose all of your normal routine and structure.
Loss of Identity
This may seem initially surprising, as never in your life do you say and hear your full name and date of birth as much as when in hospital! However, during your stay, you are purely there to have symptoms investigated, a condition managed or treated, and/or a procedure. You are not dressed as you normally would be, probably haven’t done your hair the same etc. and, with the possible exception of some fellow patients, others are not going to get to know you, personally. You lose your professional persona; something a lot of people primarily identify with. Also the context of your connections and relationships to others. You are not dressing and accessorising (a form of self-expression), and you don’t have your usual things with you; sometimes not even your regular beverage, bag or phone, so, an absence of personal items. Essentially, you are just not being seen and known as your full self. It’s somewhat surreal.
Loss of Interaction
Whilst, when we are not in a global pandemic, we can have visitors in hospital, it’s not the same as when we would usually spend time with them. It’s not over dinner or a drink, it’s not at one of your homes etc. it’s at a bedside. And you’re looking ‘casual’ to say the least! Add to that the feeling that you have no news or gossip, and that other people around you are listening (there’s no privacy) it can feel a little awkward. Not to mention the strain or worry over your health. We are also missing the little daily interactions and social connections that keep a lot of people going; getting a newspaper, running errands, popping to the shops, saying hello to a neighbour or fellow dog-walker, seeing colleagues and family… It can be an extremely quiet and isolating time.
Loss of Energy
It may seem obvious, but the sitting or laying around, with not a lot to break up the day, and not much to do, can cause inertia and ennui. It may seem odd to feel so tired after ‘doing nothing’ but remember how you feel when you’ve just travelled on a long journey, for instance: the monotony makes you weary. There’s also the constant artificial light and absence of being outside. The boredom and listlessness can easily get to you, not to mention that, on top of that, you are probably unwell or recovering. Feeling exhausted and worn out by simple things can often trigger frustration, as can the lack of independence. This can be especially difficult for busy people to adjust to.
What Can Help
Some of my own tips for best supporting those in hospital include the following: Don’t constantly ask them how they are. When I’m sleepy or tired, I can feel pressure to reply to messages like this, to keep people up to speed. Instead, maybe suggest they have just one or two key people to keep updated, and those people can pass the news along to others. I type out one reply and then copy & paste it. As a patient, you can just reply “Please ask so-and-so, I give them all the reports!” If there is a development about the patient, rest assured that someone will let you know. You can also telephone the ward for an update from the nurses, and they will tell the patient that you called.
Having said that, it is important to let the patient know that you are thinking of them, so message them without any need for a reply. No questions! My favourite types of messages are photos, as well as memes or gifs to make me smile, and any news or gossip, no matter how small. Did something happen at work? Have you been out? Have you heard from a mutual acquaintance? What made you smile? It can even just be that you read an interesting book or article, or watched a good film or tv show that you recommend. This can also lead to a future point for discussion. Sometimes it’s nice to think about something else! You can of course add a “hope you’re doing or feeling ok.” Just a simple “Thinking of you” means a lot.
If you are able to visit, ask what snacks to bring the patient (if allowed). It’s strange the things you can miss, and it’s nice to have snacks! A little squash to add to their water might also be appreciated. Magazines, crosswords and so forth are always good. I like to read, but a collection of short stories is handy, as I can’t always concentrate for too long (plus if I don’t like one, I can skip it!) Another gift, if they are able to sit up and be dexterous, are puzzles, Lego (yes, there is Lego for adults) and quiz cards, or even a pack of playing cards to play with other patients once Covid restrictions abate. Your patient may also appreciate some dry shampoo, hand cream, lip balm, anti-perspirant, and moist wipes, to help feel fresh and comfortable. If possible, bring them in clean underwear, pyjamas, or a nightshirt. Leisure wear (leggings, tracksuits etc.) is always appreciated, if the patient can be dressed. You want to be comfy, but you want to be dressed in your own things.
Give them space to talk, not just about their health; ask them how they are doing emotionally. You’d be surprised how nobody usually asks that, and how they may want to explore it (so be prepared to listen and hold space). They may not, and that’s ok too. But it’s good if the offer is always there. Another tool for some is Mindfulness, Grounding or Guided Meditation. You can recommend apps they can get on their mobile, or you can do it with them over a phone-call. I love to do a meditation of different coloured lights flooding through me and healing my body, or another one where I travel to somewhere; could be a mountaintop with sunshine and fresh air, could be the beach, the forest, or an ancient and sacred temple, or could just be back to my home, where I’m watching tv with my family and the cats are sleeping in their beds. Told you I get homesick!
There are many ways to support those in hospital, and this could include helping them out by taking their partner or children out, having them over for dinner, walking the dog for them, doing the shopping or some laundry, or dropping off a meal that can go in the freezer. These things are also gratefully received when the person is back home convalescing, too! When I’m away in hospital, or poorly at home, it’s hard on my family and extra work for my partner, so anything people do to help lighten their load is a weight off my own shoulders. Above all, remember that the patient may be stressed, worried, frightened, and generally not themselves. Don’t be offended if they are a bit snappy, forgetful, or seem distracted. Ask them what they need; and be prepared to listen. It’s that simple.
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