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A Good End

9 Tips for Visiting Someone in Hospice

Victorian girl visiting her father in hospital, 19th Century

No matter your feelings about extravagant weddings and the British royal family, I think we can all agree that they did a beautiful mitzvah by turning the flowers from Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding into bouquets for hospice patients.

And whether or not you are of royal blood, visiting a loved one who has entered hospice care can be a nerve-wracking experience. But it doesn’t have to be. There are things you can do to bring comfort and joy to a person in hospice. We pulled together the following tips from the hospice nurses, social workers, and clergy at MJHS Health System.

1. Timing is Everything.

Plan the time of your visit carefully. Find out when your friend or relative is feeling most energetic: morning, midday, or night? When do medications need to be taken? Speak with the patient, family caregiver, hospice staff, or close friend to determine the best time of day to visit. And make sure to double check that it is still a good day and time to visit before heading over.

2. Comfort Food — Or Not

Don’t just show up with your specialty brisket or noodle kugel without checking in first. Find out if there are any dietary restrictions, or if the patient is craving something. If he or she is on a liquid diet, you could bring a smoothie or milkshake. If martinis were a favorite but alcohol is no longer an option, make a toast over water in martini glasses. Sometimes smelling a favorite food can be a comfort, even if it can no longer be eaten — the aroma of a freshly baked challah or a fragrant pot of chicken soup can bring back beautiful memories even if they can’t be tasted. But again, ask first.

3. Technology Can be a Powerful Tool

Even if the patient can no longer travel, he or she can still be part of a family simcha. Facetime, Skype, and live streaming are all ways to help someone be a virtual guest at a Bat Mitzvah, a bris or a wedding.

4. Think Twice About Bringing Decorations

Fragrant flowers are beautiful but can be majorly problematic for someone with respiratory issues; a giant bunch of balloons might crowd a small room. Find out if there is something particularly meaningful — and not too large — that you can bring. Homemade cards and drawings, as well as family photos, are always a good choice.

5. Don’t Bring an Entourage

If you planned to come alone, don’t decide on a plus-one — or two! — at the last minute. Additional guests can be overwhelming and can make a room feel crowded.

6. Children are a Blessing — Usually

Kids can bring lots of energy and joy into the room — but only if that energy and joy will not overwhelm the patient. Exuberant hugs and kisses may be welcomed, or they can exacerbate existing pain. Let the patient be your guide.

7. Keep an Eye on the Clock

Don’t overstay your welcome — patients often tire easily. You may be having a lovely visit and dreading what could be a final farewell, but be mindful of any cues you may be getting from the patient or family members.

8. No Surprises

This isn’t the time to try and mend fences or settle a long-standing family feud unless specifically requested by the patient. He or she may have already made her peace with whatever quarrel or drama happened in the past, and resurfacing matters may do more harm than good.

9. Don’t Take It Personally

Don’t take offense if a patient doesn’t express delight over a thoughtful gift or painstakingly crafted card or drawing. He or she may be too tired to be effusive about the gift. The same goes for not talking during the visit, ending the visit suddenly, or seeming apathetic about a holiday or celebration.

The bottom line when visiting someone in hospice is to let the patient be your guide, to be present and in the moment, and remember that it isn’t about you. Visiting a loved one who is in hospice care for a life-limiting condition is going to bring up all sorts of emotions, and it may be hard to squish those emotions down — particularly if you aren’t having the kind of visit you envisioned. In the end, remember that you are doing a huge mitzvah — even if you aren’t bringing a leftover bouquet from the royal wedding. Like so many things in life, it’s about showing up and showing you care.

This post is part of a series supported by MJHS Health System and UJA-Federation of New York to
raise awareness and facilitate conversations about end of life care in a Jewish context.
To learn more about the role of hospice and its value to patients and families click here.

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