Patients With Dignity

What can you do to maintain the dignity of your loved one during a hospital stay?

As a nurse, I make it a priority to maintain the dignity of my patients. But to my shock, I was faced with a whole new situation when my mother was hospitalized several years ago and was not able to care for herself.

I felt helpless as my mother suddenly became vulnerable and completely dependent on others, even for her most basic needs. Simple tasks, such as bathing and grooming, using the restroom, eating, turning over, and communicating her needs were things she could no longer do.

While the hospital staff did their best to make her comfortable, as her daughter, I knew I could make a bigger impact. Simply being with her and letting her know I cared meant a lot. But I knew I needed to do more to help her retain her dignity through this difficult time.

Get involved

Here are some things I was able to do and that you can do to help your loved one feel more in control while in the hospital.

1. Make sure the hospital staff gets to know the patient. It is important that you communicate simple things such as how your loved one wants to be addressed. Does he prefer to be called Mr. or by his first name? If there is a communication board in the room, this could be explained there.

2. Make sure you and the patient are involved in the decisions regarding care. Ask to speak to the physician. Write down questions and be prepared to go through them. This will help you not feel rushed during the doctor's visit. When you are well informed, have a discussion with your loved one before making any decisions.

3. Make the environment as familiar as possible for the patient. Having a favorite pillow, nightgown, pajamas, or undergarments might provide a sense of familiarity. Some hospital gowns do not promote modesty or dignity. However, most hospitals have larger gowns or gowns with pajama bottoms, so make sure to ask. It might be best, if allowed, to bring in personal garments for your loved one to wear.

4. Ask the unit staff if you may stay overnight with the patient. This might not be feasible in every hospital setting, such as in Intensive Care Units. But if asked, the nursing staff will make every effort possible to make it happen. Your loved one will be comforted to know that someone is at the bedside that he can trust. This will certainly help in the healing process.

5. You may bring and display personal items in the hospital room that are familiar to the patient. A picture of a spouse or grandchildren will provide comfort and hope.

6. You may display pictures of the patient for the staff to see. This will remind everyone of the fulfilling and productive life he has led prior to hospitalization.

7. Ask staff that during bathing and hygiene procedures, you would like to be present. Having a familiar presence during these most private events may give the patient a sense of comfort. If your loved one is able to assist in his own care, encourage him to participate.

8. When the patient is scheduled for tests or procedures such as x-rays, ultrasounds or MRIs, you or a family member may be with him. Certain procedures that are routine for hospital staff can invade privacy. Inserting a urinary catheter to ensure accurate measurement of urine may be very uncomfortable and degrading. Making sure medical personnel explain these procedures and assure the patient that all is being done to maintain his privacy will help him feel more at ease. Again, you may ask to be available during such procedures to ensure the maximum privacy is provided.

9. When hospitalized, some patients get confused, especially after dark, because they are in unfamiliar surroundings. Understand that this is common, especially among elderly patients. During these times, hospital staff may want to restrain the patient to assure their safety. If you offer to stay overnight, it may provide the calm and reassurance your loved one needs.

Inside and out

Healing occurs by caring for the whole patient -- body, mind, and spirit. While doctors and nurses are trained to provide holistic care, it is the family who can make a difference by focusing on the mind and spirit. A big part of that is retaining your loved ones dignity during the healing process by taking some of the simple, easy steps I have suggested.