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How to talk to someone in hospice care: ideas to help you out

A younger woman speaking to an older woman sitting outside in the fading light; both women are smiling.

Having a friend or family member receiving hospice care can be difficult, but it’s important to show that you care about them – more so now than ever before. That’s why, when talking to someone during this time, it’s good to simply talk about whatever they want (or not talk, if they prefer that).

But for those who may be visiting someone in a hospice for the first time, or who feel apprehensive about saying the wrong thing, here are just a few guidelines to help you better communicate with and support your loved one as they receive this end-of-life care.

What is appropriate to say to someone in a hospice

1. “How are you doing today?”

It might seem like a fraught question, but hospice patients generally appreciate the normality of starting a conversation this way. The key is to really listen to the answer – if they don’t want to talk about themselves, that’s fine, but if they do, listen to any complaints or emotions they want to express. Lend them your sympathy without trying to solve the problem. And if they ask how you’re doing as well, answer honestly but briefly: “I’m doing okay; I’m happy to see you.”

2. “Can I get you anything?”

Consider offering a couple of options (a cup of tea or an extra pillow, for example) to make it easier for them to say yes. That said, if they don’t need anything, don’t keep asking repeatedly, as this may feel quite stifling. Again, just listen and pay attention to their needs throughout your visit.

3. “Want to do something together?”

If the person is physically strong enough, you could take a walk, play cards, or have a meal together; if not, you could read to them, listen to music, or watch a television programme or film. If you’re visiting a child, consider bringing a game or asking what they would like to play to make the visit as enjoyable as possible.

4. “Remember when we…”

It’s always nice to share a fond memory with someone to remind them of the special role they have played in your life. Even better if you can bring it up organically – for example, you might say, “Remember when we took a trip around this time of year? It was so great because of [X, Y and Z]…” You can also invite them to share their own memories, or even look at old photos or videos and reminisce.

5. “I love you”

Needless to say, visiting a loved one who is receiving hospice care is the perfect time to tell them that you love them. Say so throughout your visit, or just at the end – while it may be very simple, it’s also one of the most meaningful things you can say.

Mother with daughter sitting on bed at Cottage Hospice

One of the best things to talk about when visiting someone in a hospice is something nice you have done together and the memory you share. Pull out your phone and have a look at your favourite photos or videos with your loved one, and look back fondly on that time.

What to avoid saying to someone in a hospice

1. “Everything happens for a reason”

While this might seem reassuring, it’s more likely to frustrate or sadden someone who is receiving hospice care, especially if they are relatively young.

2. “It seems like you’re getting better”

Particularly for those who have recently moved into hospice care or started receiving it at home, they might seem better because their needs are being met more fully, or because they’re more at peace with their decline. But the reality is that the person will not get better, so don’t put that pressure on them – instead, just say you’re glad to see they’re being taken care of.

3. “I can’t even imagine what I would do – you’re so brave”

This is especially true for parents of children. It might seem like a compliment, but parents don’t want to be congratulated on their bravery; it’s a poor consolation prize for having a sick child. Feel free to tell them you’re sorry, but keep the commendations to yourself.

4. Asking what they want, but then insisting on something else

Might seem like a good idea if it’s only a little different (for example, suggesting a different movie you haven’t already seen), but even small changes can be stressful and not ideal; just listen to them and commit to doing what they like, even if you would do things differently

5. Becoming very upset or asking them to comfort you

Again, expressing emotion is not a bad thing, and you may even shed a few tears together in the course of the visit. But you must try to largely keep it together for the sake of your loved one – the last thing they need is to feel even worse about the progression of their illness, or feel like they have to comfort you.

patient on ward hugging her grandchildren

It’s absolutely fine to feel strong emotions while visiting someone in a hospice. However, if possible, you’ll want to remain conscious of not overwhelming the patient or making them feel bad. Have a hug, tell them you love them, and be as receptive as possible to their needs.

At the end of the day, follow the lead of your loved one and don’t overthink what you say. Just be genuine, loving, and as good of a listener as you can be. If you need any more help, you can always turn to our volunteers and staff at Hospice in the Weald – we are trained to manage all parts of palliative and end-of-life care, and of course that includes the emotional side as well.

Hospice in the Weald Pembury building

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