Nestled in the middle of February, Valentine’s Day provides opportunities for us to express love and appreciation for each other. It’s always appropriate to share your fondness for your loved one on hospice; you don’t need to wait for a special day. Hospice is often a short period at the end of one’s life. Time is precious — make those last moments count.
Hospice patients may be at various levels of responsiveness or ability, but you can communicate your love to them in a variety of ways. Even for hospice patients who are nonverbal and unresponsive, studies show that many can still hear even as they near death.
Hospice patients are often on heavy pain medications, drift in and out of sleep, and have cognitive or breathing challenges that make it difficult to respond. As a caregiver or family member, you may not get the perfect conversation, but don’t let that discourage you. Read a few ways to let your loved one on hospice know you care — and some tips for what to avoid.
Use a Comforting Tone and Words
Make sure to speak gently, but loud enough so they can hear you. Eliminate distracting background noise. Tell them, “I love you” or “I forgive you” or “I appreciate you.” Apologize if needed, but don’t demand forgiveness. Share favorite memories. Listen with patience even if there are stories you’ve heard many times before. Write a love letter and read it to them, then they have it available to reread whenever they need a reminder.
Touch Them & Be Comfortable with Silence
Simply holding their hand or touching their arm speaks volumes. Stroke their hair or give a gentle foot or back massage with lotion, keeping in mind that a hospice patient’s skin may be sensitive and fragile. Don’t be afraid to touch them, even if there are IVs, breathing tubes, or medical equipment. If you’re sitting at their bedside, make sure your body language is open and receptive. Maintain eye contact if they are looking at you while talking.
Plan Quality Time
If your loved one is able, plan a special outing like a walk or drive to a favorite place. Set aside time for in-home bonding, like a movie or puzzle if they’re able. Read to them or listen to their favorite music together. Do their nails or extra personal care beyond typical caregiving. Ask if they’d like to look at photo albums or home videos. Don’t assume in case reliving good times makes them sad to miss out on future memories.
Acknowledge Special Days
Do something to recognize holidays like Valentine’s Day or birthdays. Don’t put pressure on the patient, but decorate or honor a low-key tradition, like sharing a favorite dessert. If the patient is physically able, hospice can help arrange care if you travel for a special vacation or occasion.
Release Them with Love
Absolve them of any potential guilt by reassuring them that you want to be there with them. If appropriate, say, “It’s OK if you’re tired and ready to go. You can be at peace and without pain.” Set up video calls with long-distance loved ones.
What Not to Say to Hospice Patients
Don’t share your fears or heavy grief. It will burden them more if you say things like, “I don’t know how I’ll live without you.” It’s normal to shed tears with them, but don’t get overly emotional where they feel the need to comfort you. You can find support elsewhere from a spiritual advisor or clergy, support group, counselor, or friend.
Don’t use trite phrases. For example, these may be hurtful instead of helpful: “Everything happens for a reason.” “God must need another angel.” “I know how you feel.” “I can’t imagine.” “You’re so brave.”
Don’t put expectations on their behavior. One day, the patient may be accepting and other days they may be struggling. Expecting them to put on a brave face or be joyful is burdensome. If they say upsetting or out-of-character things, simply let your presence and comfort be known; don’t correct them.
Don’t ask generically, “What can I do for you?” Often, those with terminal illness are at a loss of what’s truly helpful. Ask specific questions like, “Do you feel like ice cream tonight?” or take the initiative, like getting a new pair of warm socks, their favorite flowers, or a special audiobook.
Don’t use past tense, as if they are already gone. Phrases like, “I loved you” or “We had the best times together” may be upsetting. Instead, use present tense when possible. “We have so many laughs together!” or “You are the best cook in the family. We love your homemade apple pie!”
As a caregiver, you are communicating love every day by making sure your loved one is comfortable. To help keep you going, take advantage of hospice support for caregivers and self-care routines to avoid burnout.
Heart to Heart Hospice is a hospice provider in Indiana, Michigan, and Texas that provides comfort, support, and dignity for patients and families. If you are the primary caregiver, Heart to Heart Hospice provides a Memory Journal to help guide conversations, capture cherished memories, and record special messages.