10 things you can do to improve someone’s hospital stay

In a recent blog post, I gave you a list of 15 things you might consider packing to make your upcoming hospital stay more comfortable. But what if you’re a visitor, not the patient? What kinds of things can you do to make your friend or relative happier while they’re in the land of backless nightgowns and fluorescent lighting?

Start by taking a look at that checklist. If an item on it didn’t make it into your friend’s room, consider bringing it to her. She may have run out of time, or tote space, to get a floor lamp, for example, but by now she may be wishing she had one.

Here are some new ideas to consider:

1. If your patient is tall — say, 6’0″ or over — there’s every chance in the world that he’s feeling cramped in his hospital bed. It’s a little-known fact that most hospital beds can be lengthened. Choose a moment when the nurses aren’t at their busiest, and ask to have the bed extended. Typically, an engineer will be summoned, the bed footboard will be pulled out, and an extension will be inserted at the foot of the mattress.

2. If your patient will be in bed for any appreciable amount of time, she will be more comfortable if she’s lying not just on the mattress but also on a bed pad designed to improve her blood circulation. If your patient’s bed doesn’t have one, ask for one. In the old days, you’d get an egg-crate style foam pad; the newer approach is an inflatable bed pad that automatically adjusts itself under the patient to avoid sustained pressure in one spot or another. Bed sores are a real issue, but even if they’re not a concern for your patient, a pad will make a hospital bed much more comfortable.

3. Here’s another problem with hospital beds: To protect patients, mattresses and pillows are encased in plastic — a splendid idea, no doubt, but the result, too often, is that your patient will find himself lying in a pool of sweat. Do him a favor and ask the nurse changing his bed linens to add a cotton blanket under him. The nurse will understand perfectly, and it really will improve your patient’s life.

4. Many hospitals are very dry environments — you’ll notice that your patient’s hands are dry, or that she welcomes an application of moisturizer. Consider asking the nursing staff for a humidifier.

5. As I’ve mentioned on CareZone’s Facebook page, my best tip is to decorate your patient’s room. Hospital rooms are usually all-beige, and what art they have is mediocre. Just a few changes and additions will make all the difference in the world. Be sure, of course, not to do anything that will get in the nurses’ way — after a couple of days, you’ll know their routine, and you’ll know, too, what sight lines and flight paths they need to care for your patient.

Decorations can be as simple as hanging up a reproduction of a beloved piece of art (or examples of a beloved child’s artwork) and bringing in a colorful throw; for a friend on extended bed rest, we covered the hospital chair with a slipcover, bought a couple of colorful throw pillows, a lap robe, and a floor lamp from IKEA, and obscured the hospital’s wall art with cheerful posters. Please note that the hospital’s art will be screwed to the wall and cannot be taken down — use a reusable adhesive like Blu-Tack to stick your art temporarily on top.

6. If your patient’s circumstances prevent her from wearing clothing of her own, you can help her make do with what the hospital has to offer by asking for extra hospital gowns: Worn the other way around (that is, with the ties and opening in front), a second gown will function like a robe, and cover your patient’s tush. If your patient can negotiate her legs into pants, ask for scrub pants for her — that’ll solve the problem of too-short hospital gowns showing too much leg (or worse).

Layered hospital gowns -- practical and chic (Photo by Michelle Tribe)
Layering, a practical and chic solution to the hospital gown problem — note the daring blend of patterns (Photo by Michelle Tribe)

7. You may well find your patient tired to the point of delirium, and if it appears that the problem is due (at least in part) to all the visits he receives throughout his day, you can ask his nurse to have his visits “grouped.” It may work, it may not, and you may have to keep asking as the shifts change, but ideally it’ll mean that your patient gets his visits in clusters, giving him more of a chance to rest between bouts of activity.

8. It will boost your patient’s spirits to be clean and tidy. My father-in-law really appreciated it when I trimmed his fingernails, but I didn’t have the skills to give him a pedicure — and when I was in the hospital, I yearned for clean hair but couldn’t bring myself to let even my oldest friends give me a bed shampoo. Happily, many hospitals provide access to advanced grooming services, beyond the basic care that nurses provide. Ask about getting someone to come into your patient’s room to care for her hair, shave her legs, or give her a pedicure or massage. If the services aren’t available in-house, ask how to arrange for an outside provider to visit.

9. Flowers are always welcome, right? Well, not always. Some hospitals don’t allow them, but even if they’re allowed, your patient may find himself unusually sensitive to scent (sadly, my hospital stay happened when Stargazer lilies — to me, a migraine with a stem — were in season). Play it safe and go with a cheery stuffed toy or a scentless flower like an orchid, if you or someone else will be there to water it (Bonus orchid watering tip: Simply put 3 ice cubes in the pot every week). Balloons also work, but they too will need to be removed when their moment has passed: The only thing as sad as dead flowers is deflated balloons.

If treats arrive that your patient can’t use (scented flowers, or a loving but misguided gift of food), give them to the nursing staff with your patient’s thanks and good wishes, either for their use or to pass on to another patient. There is no downside to improving the nursing staff’s lives — they deserve every good thing that comes their way, and they’ll respond kindly to your patient’s thoughtfulness.

10. The main gift you can give your patient, however, is your company. Chat, if you think that would cheer her, or read aloud; provide a sympathetic, listening ear; or just sit with her. Your presence, whether you’re interacting with her, or watching TV with her, or knitting quietly by her side, is a tremendous comfort.

Physical contact is important: Depending on your relationship with your patient (and the state of her health), shake her hand or pat her wrist, give her a kiss, or hold her hand. If her feet are cold, rub them or plop them in your lap to warm them. Heck, if there’s room for you among the wires and tubes, and she’d be comforted by a hug, tuck up next to her in bed.

Do you have other ideas to add to this list? We’d all love to hear them — please add a comment!

Posted July 23, 2013 by m-a