The Forgotten Patient
The spouse, partner or designated caretaker of a person who is ill has a powerful role in the healing process. The words, attitudes, and attention provided by the caretaker can literally help a patient to heal from even one of the most deadly diseases. But the caretaker can also help to increase or decrease the emotional and physical distress already felt by the patient who is uncertain about the future.
Rarely does a caretaker focus on the emotional needs of the patient. In the caretaker role, most of us tend to focus on those remedies prescribed by the medical professionals, e.g., choosing the most appropriate surgical procedure and researching the benefits and side effects of the suggested medications. Next, the caretaker focuses on learning all about the illness – what are the suggested activities and contraindications during the healing process. In this role, we may insure that the patient has a comfortable bed or reclining chair, adequate blankets for warmth, appropriate food and drink, medications to decrease the pain, destroy the germs or assist the healing process.
In the zealous and often frantic desire to make it easier for the patient, the caretaker may inadvertently increase the patient’s fear, anxiety and level of stress. Each of us needs to feel valued as well as capable. A loving caretaker who is afraid of losing the person he or she loves, may hover over the patient, check on every movement and actually prevent the patient from making self-determined choices. This can put the patient into a conundrum. On the one hand, the patient feels supported, loved and taken care of. On the other hand, the patient may feel denigrated and invalidated, as if he or she is totally incompetent.
Of course, if a patient has broken several bones and cannot move around, the additional care may be totally appropriate. However, in many cases the patient has an illness that is not currently incapacitating. The more responsibility the patient assumes for his or her own care, the more powerful and capable of healing that patient will feel. And the mind is an essential part of the healing process. What we believe can make the difference between healing or regressing, and ultimately between life and death.
Instead of getting angry at a well-meaning caretaker, it is up to the patient to clarify his or her expectations, desires and needs. The patient, who is already in a compromised position, needs to communicate appreciation, love and gratitude for the other person’s willingness to assist. Yet the patient also needs to insist upon collaboration, respect and the need to be listened to and heard as the treatment begins. The best time for the patient to clarify and discuss his or her needs is very shortly after the original diagnosis is confirmed and prior to the start of any actual treatment.
As caretaker, it is important to offer help as needed, refrain from overdoing it unless it is requested, and to be mindful and supportive of the patient’s changing mental and emotional states. As the patient, it is important to acknowledge and appreciate the ongoing efforts of the caretaker, even in those dark moments of pain and emotional upset. Caretaker and patient are actually a team. Working together, both can feel loved, validated and appreciated. The relationship bond will strengthen and both will feel a strong sense of love and gratitude as well as a deep appreciation of the fragile impermanence of life.
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