13 Tips for Surviving Hospitalization of an Aging Parent or Spouse

How many times have people said “You must take care of yourself?” when caring for an elderly loved one who’s hospitalized.

There’s stress….too many things to take care of; possibly many people giving advice; definitely emotionally draining. And then when we feel balance–if not control–we’re knocked down by a big wave of new problems: unexpected health changes or minor setbacks, hospital staff who are too busy to answer call buttons in a timely manner or worse.

In truth, the ongoing hospital experience with my husband gives me little to complain about. That said, after 2 weeks I’m convinced these suggestions ease the experience:

First and Foremost Remember the Goal–in this case 2 goals:

  1. To get him or her well and out of there asap
  2. To keep ourselves from getting dragged down by all the stuff–from people’s attitudes (including the patient’s and family members’) to pushing ourselves to meet every expectation. In short fend off–protect against–frustration and exhaustion.

Organize, organize, organize.

  1. Decide what’s controllable. Make the most of and gain strength from that. And act on it. We can wear ourselves out worrying about things that aren’t controllable in a hospital. (Confession: I like to think everything is within my control. My counseling kicks in–thank goodness–and I identify whether or not I can control. If I’ve tried everything (talking to anyone who can help, getting all information I can,) and it hasn’t worked, I’ve disciplined myself to “let go.”)
  2.  If not staying at the hospital, each night put everything in logical order and use a tote bag or equivalent for items that need to go–the next day–to the hospital for parents/spouse/ourselves. That way nothing is forgotten the next morning.

Example: It was bitterly cold in NYC and I tried to take the bus, rather than taxis (expensive) to the hospital. So I put my down parka on a chair near the door with bus pass in one pocket, lined gloves in the other, and placed the things that needed to go to the hospital next to them. That way if the phone rang while getting ready, I wouldn’t lose my train of thought and could sprint to the bus stop if necessary without leaving anything behind.

3. Take medications and vitamins on time. Place them where we can’t forget them. It’s easy to put this off when we’re rushing–or completely forget. We need all our strength.

4. Sleep/Rest: Get enough of it. We think more clearly and make better decisions when we’re rested.

5. Ask questions to learn the hospital routine in order to make the most of the visiting hour schedule and schedule our own “must-do’s” around it. I also asked where the hospital’s food offerings were located. (Fortunately there was a Starbucks close by.)


1. If surgery is scheduled, ask how long it should take. That enables us to control what we do during that time. There’s probably a waiting area for families. Some may find the large commonality of shared concern supportive. I don’t. We’ve always lived far from family. Although friends volunteered to wait with me, I decided being surrounded by anxious people in the waiting area for many hours would be overly stressful.

So I met a friend (who’s sensitive and fun to be with) at the hospital and we left, but didn’t go so far that I couldn’t get back quickly. My husband’s doctor said he’d call my phone upon completing the surgery, which he did, saying surgery had gone well and I had about 4 hours before my husband would be awake enough to know I was there. That worked well. His call was like a 4-hour time-out from stress.

2. Get the phone number of the floor/unit/ward before leaving the hospital on Day One. It comes in handy, It helps avoid visits to an empty bed when tests, scans etc are being done. Before my husband was able to talk on the phone–in the beginning days after surgery–it allowed me to get information and leave a message in the early morning, before I went to the hospital. I was careful not to overuse the latter.

3. Remember or write down the names of every healthcare person who attends your loved one and call them by name when you say “hello” or “thank you.”  It seems to create a small personal bond, which gets faster results when we have questions or need help (in the latter case remember the “I need your help” phrase).

4. “Thank You Kevin/Samantha/Whoever” can’t be said too many times.

5. Show interest–however brief, if you can do it–in every hospital person who comes into the room. Because I counseled high school kids, I often asked where the nurses, CNAs etc. got their training and explained reason for my interest. If they were from another country I asked where they were from and if family was there and if they went back to see them; and if I’d travelled to the country or wanted to, I told them. I know my interest  meant something to them and when we needed something, they never failed to come through quickly.

6. Fight infection. Mt. Sinai had hand sanitizer dispensers and signs about sanitizing hands everywhere–at the entrance, exit, by the elevators, at the entrance to each unit, and in each room. The rooms also had boxes of gloves. I was prepared to be a watchdog about this, but everyone was trained well and automatically put hands to dispenser upon entering and exiting the room.

Every hospital may not train as well–and monitoring everything is no easy responsibility. Yet we become the eyes and ears for hospitalized aging parents and our spouses. And doesn’t that buttress the case for why we need our rest!

                           to be continued…..

Related: Hospitalization Tips that Make a Difference for Grandparents. Parents, Children and Us

Check out “Newsworthy” (right sidebar). Links to timely tips, information and research from top universities and respected professionals–to help parents age well.

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