Visit the Sick – Etiquette

Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matt. 7:12). Providing social time and spiritual encouragement to a suffering loved one, friend, or church member is one application of this command. With just a short visit you can brighten the day of another person and encourage them to greater trust in God.

So far, my posts on visiting the sick have been intended to motivate you to visit, provide a plan of action, reassure you who are hesitant, and facilitate ministering conversations. Now I’d like to highlight some practical courtesies. At what time of day should you visit? How long should you stay? Should you stand or sit? What if the nurse is in the room? What should you wear? What if you are sick?

Go healthy. If you are sick, DO NOT visit the sick. Sick people don’t need another illness. “Consider others more important than yourself” (Phil. 2:4).

Make your personal appearance clean and neat. I know we live in an age of “I’m comfortable in these tatters and you should accept me as I am” but consider that the patient already has so little beauty around him. He has to look at you even when you don’t. Sloppiness and grunginess will not enhance the view.

There are already many unpleasant odors. Brush your teeth, but don’t apply perfume. The sense of smell of patients in hospitals can be more acute than normal and applied fragrances can irritate and even nauseate.

Clean your nails. Your cleanliness and how you dress communicates your values to others. Honor the patient by caring what he has to see when you walk in the door.

Generally speaking, avoid first thing in the morning or late at night. Of course, variables like the type of facility and your work schedule will be factors. Not knowing exact schedules, you might arrive during a meal. Assess the situation. Is he feeling uncomfortable because he thinks it rude to eat when you have nothing? Do your best to put the patient at ease. If necessary, shorten the visit.

Keep visits short. Patients tire easily. In a hospital, plan on five to ten minutes, especially in ICU. A home can usually last longer, like twenty to thirty minutes. In any case, relax. If you watch your watch it may seem to the patient that he is inconveniencing you. If you assess that a longer visit would be pleasing to the person without draining his energy, you can stay.

People in long-term care or shut-ins may enjoy longer visits. I’ve had a resident in assisted living give me a tour of her new digs; since she was slow-moving it took awhile–and made her happy. One facility near me has an outdoor patio where not many residents go; it makes a pleasant private place for us  to talk and pray and sing. Another has a fish pond where we feed bread to the critters. These locations entail more time. Still, sometimes the fun needs to be cut short because the patient grows tired even though he tries to hide it.

Be sensitive. It is better that they wish you’d stayed longer than that you’d left sooner.

Enter the room with a calm, congenial cheerfulness. Overdone happiness won’t compensate for the sadness of others. Nor should you start with sadness even if the case is sad; it doesn’t encourage and may communicate that the patient is worse off than he thought.

As you enter, announce or introduce yourself. Even a friend may forget names and faces if he is medicated and/or in a strange environment. If your arrival wakes him from sleep he may be disoriented. Introduce yourself also to other friends or family who may be in the room.

Wash your hands so as not to carry little varmints into contact with a person already sick. Either apply sanitizer from the dispenser at the room or wash at the sink. You don’t need to scrub like a surgeon.

If you enter a room in ICU, you may be required to put on a gown, mask, and gloves. There will be signs explaining the process of putting them on and taking them off. You can also ask a nurse.

Generally speaking, try to be on the patient’s eye level. Standing to talk to a patient in bed places you higher; that is a power position. Try to be seated. If no chair is available, go find one or ask a nurse for one.

Respect the roommate and staff. If it is a semi-private room pull the curtain between the beds. This provides privacy for both patients. Speak with the lowest volume that is still audible to your friend. This honors the privacy of your friend. It also is a kindness to the other patient. It frees him from having the problems of his roommate thrust upon him unwanted, reduces distractions from his rest, sleep, or reading, and allows him to listen to the TV or have a conversation on his side without being drowned out by your conversation.

What if medical staff arrive? Offer to step outside the room until the doctor or nurse is done. You may ask how long it will be and, if necessary, make your exit right then. Sometimes the nurse or the patient will urge you to stay in the room.

Leaving the room, wash your hands again. With so many sick people, hospitals are full of germs. Wash your hands so as to not carry microscopic varmints to your next stop or home. If you had to mask and gown to enter the room, remove them in the proper manner.

Leaving the room, give farewells to the patient and each person involved with him. Even though you came primarily to visit the patient, it demonstrates respect if you don’t exclude others in the room.

Extra: Minister to the medical staff. If you minister to someone with a visit, may the Lord be praised! Consider also the idea of ministering to the facility staff. Pray for them on your way to the building or as you walk through the halls. Stop and thank a staff person for his care of your friend or loved one. You can ask if they have a request for which you might pray. Consider writing it to help you remember. Pray for the person that day or week. Upon your return, ask the staff person about his request.


Sources: See end of this post.


About Linda

Wifing, Singing, Studying, Counseling M.A. in Biblical Counseling Certified by Association of Certified Biblical Counselors
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