How Families Can Support a Loved One in ICU

As the family of elderly loved ones, most people understand how to offer support and care at home or in an assisted living facility.  Helping with shopping, meals, doctor’s appointments, and household chores is all within the normal scope of caregiving, but when a family member is admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) of a hospital, it may be hard to know what can be done to help. 

To ensure loved ones get the best possible care while receiving treatment for a severe or complex illness, family and close friends can offer support in a number of ways.  According to a recent JAMA Internal Medicine Patient Page report, the family can assist the ICU team by providing a current list of all medications, medical records and an advanced care directive, if available. 

Loved ones can provide direct support to their loved ones by talking to them in a comforting manner to help them become oriented.  Even if a patient doesn’t appear to be responsive, soothing conversation and a few familiar items from home can provide comfort.  A stay in hospital can be very disorienting, especially for older adults.  By dimming lights, quieting alarms, or providing a white-noise machine, the family can help ensure patients are getting sleep. 

Because there is so much activity in the ICU, it’s best to designate one person to be the contact for communication between the doctor and the family.  The representative of the patient should keep clear in their mind what the patient would want, rather than the wishes of the family.  It is helpful to write notes, ask what time of day is best to communicate with staff and keep a list of important contact names and numbers. 

The family can also help assist in recovery by asking if they can help with stretching and exercise as directed by the ICU team.  Loved ones can also ask when it might be possible to remove tubes or lines.  Caregiving can be very stressful, especially when a loved one is hospitalized – be sure to make time to get proper rest and nutrition and stay in contact with friends and family. 

Some patients leaving ICU will return to their normal health, but more than half will have physical limitations, cognitive problems or mental health issues like depression.  Many discharged patients will also rely on caregivers to help with acts of daily living like bathing and dressing, or require rehabilitation at a care facility.  Understanding these challenges in advance can help make a difficult situation a bit less stressful and uncertain.