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5 tips for getting through a loved one’s stay in the critical care unit

holding hands in the critical care unit

When a patient needs to be admitted to the critical care unit, it’s often an unexpected and stressful time for their loved ones.

“People are scared, and they don’t know what to expect,” says Janna Di Pinto, a social worker who sees patients and families in the Tory Trauma Program at Sunnybrook.

Here are five tips for supporting a loved one through an unexpected stay in the critical care unit:

1. Education is key

Patients in the critical care unit often end up there suddenly, leaving families little time to make sense of what’s happening.

“As social workers, part of our role is to provide education on what to expect during a critical care stay. Patients can be doing well one day, and not so well the next, and it’s important for family members to know that such changes in their loved one’s condition are common,” says Di Pinto.

Staff members talk to family members about some of the expected responses and feelings they may have in this crisis event, such as:

  • Feeling scattered and unable to think straight
  • Processing information poorly
  • Decreased short-term memory
  • Decreased sense of hunger or thirst

Other helpful educational resources are available online on Sunnybrook’s Navigating the ICU website, which was developed after extensive collaboration between staff and family members.

2. Establish defined roles

In the critical care unit, families can spend a lot of time sitting at the patient’s bedside, but they aren’t sure how they can help.

Family members can contribute to their loved one’s recovery by making a playlist of the patient’s favourite songs to play at the bedside, holding the patient’s hand, bringing in photos and ensuring staff are aware of what is important to the patient.

At Sunnybrook, family members are also encouraged to participate in the care team’s daily rounds at the bedside.

“Staff can teach family members how to participate in their loved one’s care, such as encouraging range of motion exercises or redirecting a patient from pulling tubes and lines,” says Di Pinto.

3. Give yourself permission to take care of yourself

 Di Pinto says it’s important for family members to give themselves permission to take care of their own wellbeing, too.

“We don’t expect them to be at a patient’s bedside 24/7. It’s okay for them to go home, rest and then call the unit as often as they like to check in,” says Di Pinto.

Coordinating a rotating visiting schedule with others can be helpful, because it allows everyone a chance to be at the hospital while also building in time to look after themselves.

“People have many demands to juggle – maybe they live far away from the hospital, or have to return to work, or need to sort out child care. This is a time to establish a new balance and figure out new roles for themselves,” she says.

 4. Find coping strategies that work for you

Some people have a lot of anger after their loved one ends up in critical care, says Di Pinto, particularly if the admission was the result of a trauma (like a car crash) caused by someone else.

“We help family talk about which coping strategies may work best for them. For example, we let people know where the quiet spaces are around the hospital, such as the chapel or going for a walk outside. We let them know it’s okay to go to the gym, spend time with friends or pets, or even just go outside and scream if they need to,” she says.

5. It’s okay to have hope 

Di Pinto says they often talk with family members about the road to recovery, and how it is a process that takes time.

“When your loved one is in critical care, there may be a fine line between being hopeful and being realistic, but it’s okay to have hope that your family member will recover.”

About the author

Sybil Millar

Sybil Millar is the Communications Advisor for Infection Prevention and Control, Infectious Diseases, the Ross Tilley Burn Centre and the Critical Care program at Sunnybrook.

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