Visiting the Covid-19 Homebound – by Terry Howard

The American Diversity Report’s theme focusing on the impact of COVID-19 on our community is as visionary as it is timely. It also opens up opportunities for contributors to offer insights tangential yet related impacts. What follows is a look at a peripheral issue; visiting those homebound because of the pandemic and other illnesses.

Two years ago, I fell off a 10-foot wall and broke three ribs. I ended up in the emergency room. The pain was excruciating.  Back home while holed up in my bedroom in recovery for over a month, and plying myself with pain medicine, I lost my appetite and close to 25 pounds. It was unnerving to steal a look at the barely recognizable person – me that is – in the bathroom mirror during that time.

Now although the last thing I wanted was visitors, quite a few well-meaning folks wanted to stop by. But the specter of being stared at like a car wreck on the side of the road was something I didn’t want and asking them not to visit proved more difficult than I could imagine.

My biggest worry was having to deal with, “How did it happen?” “You need to be more careful,” “Wow, you lost so much weight,” “you need to do this (take that), etc.” Even more worrisome were those well-meant jokes which would make laughter extremely painful.   

Fast forward to today.

As much as we’d not like to think about it, in this age of COVID-19 and other illnesses the day is coming when we’ll find ourselves on the way to a hospital or the home of someone – a family member or friend – who’s ill. And not knowing what to expect, it’s natural to be anxious about what we’ll encounter upon arrival and the risk of doing or saying the wrong things albeit not by intent. And of course, those we visit will certainly understand and pick up on our apprehension.

Truth is, when faced with touchy issues related to visiting the affirmed, especially during COVID-19, even the well-spoken can find themselves tongue-tied with no idea what to say, let alone what to do.  Thus my hunch is that I’m not the only one who can identify with both sides of this conundrum having sat at the bedside of ill family and friends over the years on one side and, as described, having been confined to home on the other.

So because I didn’t know how best to respond in many of those situations when I did visit, I did some research and asked a few close friends for their advice. Here’s what was suggested:

  • Ask your friends if they want visitors. Find out if they’d prefer a Video/Zoom meeting instead, especially since minimizing the spread COVID-19 remains a priority. Understand that they may say yes to an in person visit to avoid hurting your feelings.
  • For in person visits, be sure to practice social distancing rules, wear a mask and wash your hands frequently. Understand that those with pre-exiting conditions are especially vulnerable.
  • Take your cues on how long to stay. Are they yawning or not talking as much as at the beginning of the visit? They may want you to leave but don’t want to hurt your feelings by saying that.
  • There is a question that we all will likely ask someone who is battling an illness – that is, “how are you feeling?” A very small change to that question can bring about a different and more relevant dialogue. Try asking “what are you feeling?” instead.
  • Touch is valuable. If your relationship would have included a hug or shaking hands, do so but take your clues from them (depending on if they are frail, the hug may need to be gentle.)
  • Look your friend in the eye. You want to connect. They want to connect. It’s awkward and it’s hard. No way around it.
  • Know when to step out of the room while they are taking care of personal needs (restroom, clothing change, medication shots, taking personal phone calls).
  • If appropriate, bring pictures. Most people are visual and giving them something to see can be a welcome distraction.
  • If you want to bring them food, find out in advance what they’d prefer.
  • Ask if there is anything you can do to help. Offer a few suggestions. It gives you a chance to be helpful. 
  • Talk about what is going on in your life. Be upbeat and positive and avoid depressing topics.
  • Share a common experience that has special meaning to both of you. Express how this person affected your life.
  • If you are with a group of visitors, interrupt staring. Engage others in side conversations and laughter. That removes the person being visited from the spotlight and creates a sense of normalcy for them.
  • Bring them housekeeping gift cards and/or a grocery shopping service or a book or stack of newspapers. Hint: Bring a hard copy of the American Diversity Report and a copy of this article).
  • Be willing to doze off in their presence. There’s something peaceful about them seeing you in such a relaxed state hearing you breathing and lightly snoring. Let them observe your being comfortable in their presence.

In the end, know that if there’s one thing that’s within our control in visiting the homebound, it is how we respond.

Terry Howard
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