Visiting family or friends in hospital
Planning a visit to see a close friend or relative in hospital can require a bit of preparation. When you start to think it through, there are a number of practicalities to consider. How long should you stay? What will you talk about (or avoid talking about!)? What’s acceptable to bring as a gift?
Although there are no set rules, hospital visit etiquette is quite important. However, every patient is an individual, and what might be appropriate for one may be completely disagreeable to another.
But don’t worry! It doesn’t have to be complicated, and most good etiquette is straightforward common sense.
To get you on your way, here are some tips to use as a general guide to help make that visit a little bit better. And remember, even if you don’t get things exactly right (and let’s be frank, none of us are perfect!) at least the person you’re visiting will feel loved, cared for and respected due to the efforts you’ve made.
Visiting etiquette checklist
Here are some ideas to use when going to visit friends or family in hospital.
Contact the person you’re visiting ahead of time. Let the patient know you’re planning to visit. It could be embarrassing for everyone if you walk in at the wrong time, whether it's during a private consultation with a doctor, or while the patient is getting dressed. Usual expectations of space and privacy are compromised in hospital, so it’s important that visitors don’t add further awkwardness to the situation.
NOTE: For the same reasons, always knock before entering a patient’s room to let them know you’ve arrived.
Consider any visiting hours in place. There is a reason for designated visiting hours, and it is important to respect them. For example, the patient may have an important medical examination scheduled just before or after your visit. You can avoid any inconvenience by being on time.
NOTE: Make sure to plan your journey to the hospital well in advance of your visit, especially if it’s your first time there.
Wash your hands! Good hygiene is really important when visiting a hospital. Don’t risk spreading germs to someone who is already vulnerable from illness or major surgery. Make sure to wear clean clothes too, and if you have a cold or any other infection that could be passed onto the person you’re visiting, it may be a good idea to reschedule for another time when you are feeling better.
Avoid wearing fragrances, such as perfume or strong smelling deodorants. Many patients will be very sensitive to intense smells, and strong odours could cause uncomfortable side effects like headaches and nausea.
Check if you can bring others with you. Some hospitals restrict the number of visitors that can arrive at one time. Patients are in a state of recovery, and too many faces around their bedside (particularly energetic children!) could create a stressful environment rather than a welcomed distraction.
NOTE: Remember to keep your visits short. Recovering patients have less energy, so 15 to 20 minutes is usually long enough for a visit. If you feel you didn’t have enough time, then it’s a great excuse to make another appointment to visit again soon.
Acknowledge the patient’s religious background. Remember to respect any holidays or festivals they may usually like to observe. With their permission, you could offer to accompany them in prayer, where appropriate.
Ask if there’s anything you can do to help make the patient feel more comfortable. Nursing staff are often extremely busy, and sometimes small comforts can get overlooked. Offering to find an extra pillow, clear a breakfast tray or even give the hospital room a quick tidying up could be a lovely gesture.
NOTE: Make sure you ask permission from the patient first before doing anything. Remember you are in their private space which must be respected.
What to bring instead of flowers or food
Hospitals can be extremely dull and boring environments, so anything to lift the spirits or offer light entertainment could be a very welcomed distraction.
But many hospitals have restrictions on what can be brought in from the outside world, particularly edible treats or plants and flowers. For these reasons it may be safer to get a little more creative with what you choose to bring as a gift.
Here are some ideas for alternative options that might bring some joy to the person you’re visiting.
Reading material. Anything from books to magazines could be entertaining. If you want to be really generous, you could even bring an electronic reading device.
Music. If the patient is able to use one, you could bring an MP3 player that you've preloaded with music they’ll enjoy. You can purchase ones these days pretty cheaply and your efforts to provide such a thoughtful gift will almost certainly be appreciated. Modern mobile phones and laptops can be loaded with music too.
Otherwise, an alternative musical gift option could come in the form of a digital radio or a portable CD player. (Yes, these do still exist if you want to take the old school approach!)
NOTE: Don’t forget to include headphones with these devices, as patients may need to keep noise levels down at certain times of the day/night.
Toiletries. Many patients find that a combination of a hospital’s dry atmosphere and side effects of strong medications can contribute to ailments such as dry hands or chapped lips. A thoughtful gift (such as a rich creamy moisturiser or a scented lip balm) could be the perfect present to bring someone, and it doesn’t take up much space on precious shelf space.
NOTE: If you don't want to go with the unscented option, be careful not to select anything too fragrant, as this can be distasteful to some people.
A gift card. Perhaps the person you’re visiting has a favourite department store where they like to shop, or maybe they’d appreciate a voucher covering the cost of a cinema visit. This type of gift might give them something fun to look forward to once they have recovered.
Artificial flowers. If you are keen on giving flowers, why not consider the fake kind? There are some gorgeous options available which would perfectly brighten up a hospital room but won’t carry the risk of infection (or nauseating aromas) that some freshly cut flowers and live plants might.
One-player games and puzzles. These are a great way for someone to pass the time while they’re in hospital. There are lots of options available—from Sudoku to crosswords and word searches—which you’ll easily find in abundance at any decent stationery shop, online or even at large supermarkets.
NOTE: Adult colouring books are also quite popular these days and are considered to have many therapeutic benefits, like promoting relaxation and reducing anxiety. A couple of these, with a selection of art supplies, could be a wonderfully thoughtful gift for someone.
Films or television shows on DVD. Many laptops have options to play DVDs, so if the person you’re visiting is lucky enough to have one of these, then a selection of films or a box set of their favourite TV shows could be a really nice present. There are also portable DVD players, which are great for this kind of situation.
Creature comforts are something everyone misses while in hospital. You could make this easier to manage by bringing the patient some cosy new pyjamas or some fluffy slippers. Hospital bed sheets are usually pretty basic too, so a lovely soft blanket or a more luxurious pillow could also be a very welcome gift offering.
Homemade art. If you have young children that the patient has a close relationship with (maybe grandchildren, nieces, nephews or neighbours) then a handmade card or picture from them is a lovely idea for a present (especially if the patient is particularly fragile, and bringing the children by for a visit isn’t a sensible option). A gift like this will help them to feel connected even though they can’t spend time together in person just yet.
Food. If something food-related is what you really want to give, then make sure to find out that whatever you’re bringing is definitely allowed into the hospital and that the patient is able to consume whatever you bring. Remember to take into account any dietary requirements of the patient too. Sometimes it can be good to play it safe with a jar of boiled sweets or even a box of luxury tea bags.
Worried you’ll say the wrong thing?
Saying the wrong thing is a common anxiety people feel when they visit someone in hospital. But most patients in hospital are much more effected by loneliness and isolation—not by unintentionally insensitive comments from visitors. Just because you are uncomfortable or anxious about your visit, don't let that stop you.
If you need some inspiration for conversation, here are some suggestions:
Play games. Activities like this mean you can entertain each other and focus on the game without having to think too much about conversation. Think about bringing in a deck of cards or a board game like chess or backgammon, and before you know it you’ll be having too much fun to think about any awkwardness.
Make a scrapbook. Why not share something meaningful and bring in a selection of photos (or even magazines with images or recipes that the patient may like) and make a scrapbook together. The finished product will be a lovely keepsake for the patient to flick through while in hospital, and it’s something they will probably treasure long after they are able to go home.
Connect with others using Skype, WhatsApp or FaceTime. This is especially good if you aren’t able to bring other friends or family members with you. See if you can log onto the hospital’s Wi-Fi and get a fun group conversation going.
Read to each other. Why not use the time during your visit to take it in turns reading portions of a book out loud to each other? Not only is it an enjoyable and relaxing way to pass the time, but since it’d be a real challenge to finish the book during a single visit, the activity offers the opportunity to reschedule regular visits to continue the story. You may find that both of you look forward to these appointments, sharing in this creative activity.
However, if finding common ground for conversation is something you’d like to practise, then have a read over some of these top tips for encouraging deeper conversation.
And when you do find yourself in the flow of a good conversation with the person you’re visiting, try to remember these positive pointers:
DO encourage uplifting topics for conversation. Being unwell and spending long periods of time in a hospital environment can be challenging to a patient’s emotional wellbeing, so your job as a visitor is to help lift their spirits. By all means discuss meaningful topics, but keep things positive.
DO avoid asking questions about the patient’s condition or inquire about recent medical test results. This is private and personal information that the patient will decide whether or not to share. It’ll only be awkward for both of you if you ask questions they don’t want to answer.
DO reassure the person you’re visiting that they’re missed by friends and family you have in common. This is a good opportunity to fill them in on what some of the people you know have been up to, so they can feel in the loop with social affairs.
DO keep your medical opinions to yourself. It makes no sense to offer your own opinions regarding how the patient should be taking steps to recover. And definitely do not relay stories about friends you know with a similar health condition. This visit is all about the person in the room with you, and it’s important that you respect their individuality.
DO give the patient your full attention, and hold off from answering your mobile phone or checking text messages until after your visit.
For more information
Take a look at the following links for additional guidance.
- NHS hospital services has more information on practical things to remember before visiting someone in hospital.
- Intensive care: experiences of family & friends offers an insight into the experiences of family and friends visiting loved ones in intensive care. The stories are presented in a range of formats (such as video and audio clips), as well as written articles.
- 10 things not to say to someone when they’re ill is an interesting article by Deborah Orr, a journalist for The Guardian. In it, she describes her experiences of awkward conversation with those who came to visit after she had been diagnosed with cancer.
- The Jewish Care Interact overview of hospital visits can help you get fully prepared for the practicalities of a hospital stay—whether it's for you, a family member or a friend.
The most important thing is to enjoy your time with the patient. Your appointment could be the highlight of an otherwise dreary day, so go to the hospital with a positive frame of mind and an intention of being the best companion you can be!