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Don’t Avoid Visiting with Terminally Ill During the Holidays

by Margie Barham, MBA, Director, Public Relations & Giving, Angelic Health

From Thanksgiving through New Year’s, the holidays are time to gather with loved ones. It is typically a joyous time of enjoying traditions and each other. Yet if you are visiting a friend or relative with a life-limiting or terminal illness you may be apprehensive that emotions will overshadow the conversation. You wonder: What can I say?

“People want to be treated like people no matter their age, their illness, or the time of year,” said April Gall, RN, director of admissions at Angelic Health. “You treat the sick or terminally ill the same way you would treat any person around any holiday, birthday or other celebratory event. It’s a time of promoting joy, the purpose of life, and spending time with those you love.”

Your visits should include reminisces of past events and lead to legacy conversation. Ask about how to make that favorite family recipe; or the story of how they met their spouse. And write it down. These memories can be great consolation for family after their loved one has passed. It can also give comfort for those who may want to share their stories, recipes, and words of wisdom.

Take your cues from the patient. If they are despondent, encourage them to share their feelings. It is okay to cry with them. If they seem to want to talk about what’s bothering them, then it is important to listen. They may want and need to express their grief regarding their condition. This can be beneficial as it may free them to be open to more positive thoughts and become hopeful about the future.

In most cases, broaching the topic of hospice and palliative care is something that people would rather avoid, particularly around a holiday. The truth is the additional care and services will provide a more meaningful and pleasant holiday by promoting quality-of-life. There is no reason to postpone care. An extra set of hands and skills to maintain quality of life at home frees the family and the patient from unnecessary worry and stress.

“There’s an inaccurate perception among the American public that hospice means you’ve given up,” said J. Donald Schumacher, president and CEO of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO). “Those of us who have worked in the field have seen firsthand how hospice and palliative care can improve the quality of and indeed prolong the lives of people receiving care.”

NHPCO encourages all families who have a member diagnosed with a serious illness to ask their healthcare providers about hospice and palliative care services. Hospice and palliative services are fully covered under Medicare, Medicaid, and many private insurances.

In general, the best way to help those who are grieving during the holidays is to let them know you care. They need to be remembered, and they need to know their loved ones are remembered, too. Local hospice grief counselors emphasize that friends and family members should never be afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing, because making an effort and showing concern will be appreciated.

Many people are not aware that their community hospice is a valuable resource that can help people who are struggling with grief and loss. Hospices provide bereavement support to the families they serve and often offer services to other members of the community as well.