With over 35 million hospital stays in the United States each year, chances are someone important to you may wind up in one. And whether it’s due to a temporary injury or ongoing illness, the person in that bed will need your support.
As helpless as you may feel, there are real things you can do — and things you really shouldn’t do — to be there for them. Here, HuffPost rounds up the best advice on how to actually help your loved one in the hospital, straight from people who’ve been there themselves.
Don’t be afraid to get specific
It’s totally natural to want to jump into helpful mode when you’ve got a sick friend.
“When someone hears about a tragedy or an illness, all the ‘what can I do?’ texts come in,” said Kyle, a 35-year-old from Fort Collins, Colorado, who was in the hospital for a knee replacement after a wakeboarding accident.
Kyle, who wished to withhold his last name to talk freely about his medical condition and relationship dynamics, said he appreciated the sentiment, but urges well-wishers to be a bit more decisive.
“It’s nice, because I know they mean well. But it’s also nicer when someone takes the initiative and says, ‘I’m bringing you chicken soup, and you’re gonna have chicken soup if you want it,’” he said. He added that an open-ended request like, “Is there anything I can do?” often puts the onus back on the patient, who might be tired, confused or even embarrassed to ask for help.
And while you don’t have to unilaterally plan their meals, offering specifics and letting them decide can take the stress off their shoulders. You can offer to pick them up their favorite dish at a local restaurant, check if they want a set of cozy pajamas brought over from home, or see if they’d like their room stocked with their go-to seltzer. Starting with straightforward, actionable things you can do for them will both show them that you care and remove the responsibility of decision-making.
Think about convenience above all else
Sara McCord, 33, from Germantown, Maryland, knows firsthand how overwhelming hospitals can be, especially as a parent. McCord’s premature baby was in the neonatal intensive care unit for 19 days after she gave birth ― so not only was she healing herself, but she was dealing with the all-consuming stress of her child being in the hospital.
She suggested getting the lay of the land of your loved one’s hospital. If there’s a Starbucks or similar type of establishment on premises, get them a gift card. These types of chains where you can purchase coffee or portable sandwiches are a huge time-saving convenience, allowing a caregiver to spend more moments at someone’s bedside. Another option is a gift card for Seamless, or a local grocery store.
“I think paying for food is something that you can do to both nourish the person whose loved one is in the hospital and also alleviate the financial burden,” she said.
Sasha Stewart, a 32-year-old from New York who spent five months in and out of the hospital for chemotherapy treatments, also suggested thinking outside of the hospital room. Offering to walk someone’s dog or come over and do a round of laundry is a big help. It may seem inconvenient to you, but the little things that keep a home running can fall by the wayside quickly without people stepping up to help.
Carol Gee, a 70-year-old from Stone Mountain, Georgia, who was in the hospital for five nights after discovering she had Type 2 diabetes, agreed. She recalled acquaintances offering to pay for valet parking at the hospital, so that she and her family could avoid the long search for a spot in the garage each day. Small gestures that make everyday life easier go a long way.
Plan your visits thoughtfully
While you might want to jump in your car and drive to the hospital as soon as possible, surprise visits are not always welcome. If you can, find someone else to ask about planning a prime visiting time.
Stewart recalls how helpful it was that her husband managed the visiting schedule of all her friends and family. That way, it allowed them to spread out everyone’s attention throughout her visits to keep her spirits up.
“You want just as many people there during round six of chemo as you had in round one,” she said.
More practically, coordinating visits was one less thing for her to deal with, and running it through her husband prevented too many people from showing up at once. If someone doesn’t have a partner or family member acting as a point person, consider checking with a floor nurse before you pop in.
McCord has another crucial piece of visiting advice: If you’re sick, or even if anyone in your home is sick, postpone. Hospitals are full of incredibly vulnerable populations like the NICU, and you could be putting others at risk if you stop by with a cold.
Plus, there’s a lot you can do even if you can’t visit in person. Considering mailing a handmade card, dialing in for a video call, or sending a care package with activities or even body wipes for those days when your loved one can’t shower.
Consider what their life after the hospital will look like
Accommodations ― no matter how small ― matter. When Gee was in the hospital, she was incredibly touched by the thoughtfulness of her co-workers. Returning to the office after illness can be a major source of stress for patients, but Gee said her team helped her develop a plan for her recovery where she could work from home and take half-days as needed.
Kyle also said his loved ones pitched in to make his life easier when he got home. They helped to retrofit the first floor of his house with a bed, since he wouldn’t be able to handle the stairs up to his room after he was discharged.
It’s fair to assume someone might still be struggling when they get home, so if you’re going to give a gift, make sure it doesn’t become a burden later. Kyle also remembers getting meals delivered to him in Tupperware with the giver’s name on it, which he didn’t know at the time how he would manage to return. (A safe rule of thumb: If you’re dropping off food, make sure to note that you don’t need the dishes back.)
Helping your loved one tackle an obstacle that’s in the future can also relieve the pressure of them worrying about it in the present.
Be emotionally present
Being a patient can be a frightening, vulnerable and frustrating experience. So, perhaps above all, your loved one needs compassion.
McCord said that just being a listening ear for whatever they’re going through is an immense kindness. If your friend just needs to vent, let them. You don’t need to solve every worry for them.
And Stewart notes to make sure you extend that empathy to someone’s spouse, as well, since they’re likely dealing with a range of emotions as a caregiver. Simply asking how they’re doing first before inquiring about their sick partner, or volunteering to take a shift so they can have a night off to see a movie, can help them feel supported, too.
Hospital stays can be overwhelming for everyone, but by putting your loved one first, thinking creatively about how best to help, and simply being there, you can do quite a bit to make the experience just a little easier.