Author Topic: Never Give a Sick Person a Plant  (Read 13057 times)


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Never Give a Sick Person a Plant
« on: December 20, 2009, 01:56:52 PM »

Having been a hospice volunteer for many years, I chose to make my own transition from standard medical care to hospice care while I could take full advantage of everything hospice care has to offer me. I am still walking around, volunteering, going to lunch with friends from time to time, etc. I still have pink cheeks and am not gaunt by any means, though I do need supplementary oxygen 24 hours a day.
   By virtue of being in the final months of my life but not completely incapacitated, I’ve been able to make several observations on the way we (I include myself in these criticisms) treat sick people in general and dying people in particular, and I offer them here .

            Never Give a Sick Person a Plant
               by Kathleen Kelly
   1. Plant or Flowers?
   Never give a sick person a plant. A plant is something else to take care of. Or to feel guilty about not taking care of. Give flowers. Flowers are a treat for the eyes whether the brain is working or not. They stand out from the background and can even penetrate pain. The fact that they will wither and die is okay; impermanence is a useful thing to think about. (There are exceptions to this rule, but most of them are known plant people.)

   2. Visiting is Complicated
   The most prominent characteristic of being very sick, so overwhelming and obvious that we often don’t even mention it, is fatigue, lack of energy, running out of steam both long term and short term.  Visits are exhausting and to some degree distract from other things I want to get done before I die, so I generally ask people not to do it. When I asked myself why I always tried to visit when I heard someone was ill, I found I’d done it just because it was expected. Not good enough. Stay in touch by telephone and email. Send cards or letters. Ask about visiting and if your sick person asks you to visit, make the effort. When you do visit, make your visit short (a half hour to an hour). If it begins to look like it’s time to leave, get up and go. Your sick person will ask you to stay if that’s what they want.

   4. “I hate hospitals.”
   A lot of people have difficulty being with sick people or going into hospitals. Even if you aren’t comfortable being in the same room with a sick person, call, send cards, email, stay in touch. Offer the sick person a way to communicate with you even if you can’t be with them in person. Don’t let them feel that you’ve abandoned them.

   5. Chemistry
   When someone is sick their body chemistry changes. When they’re dying, it changes a lot. This affects appetite, the ability to digest food and draw nutrients from it, taste in food, body odor and much more.  Don’t be offended if your sick person’s favorite food suddenly changes or if they eat differently (at different times, smaller quantities, etc.) than before.  This is not crankiness. It’s chemistry.

   6. “S/he’s a fighter.”
   Fighting takes a lot of energy and so one must always ask if it’s worth it. In my case, the facts are that there is no known cure for my particular ailment and that side effects of the ailment are piling up faster than the ailment itself. It seems to me that my energy would be better spent on living well for the time I have left than on a battle that is absolutely futile. It's not that I want to die. On the contrary, I want to live as well as I am able for the time I have left.   But there’s a lot of emotional baggage attached to “fighting” and “giving up.” As a culture, we consider it a compliment to call someone a “fighter” and consider it sad to find that someone has “given up.” Instead of using those terms when talking with (or about) your sick person, try talking about whether treatments are available, whether or not to continue treatment, balancing the costs of treatment versus quality of life and so forth. As caregivers and loved ones, it’s our job to make a safe place for the sick person to think and talk about these things. Facing the facts of the situation is a much tougher battle than pretending that “fighting” will make a difference.

   7. “Go team!”
   We really don’t like cheerleaders. It’s okay to be sad or angry. We do not have to have a positive attitude. It is precisely because we are facing the end of life that we may spend some time evaluating missed opportunities, misdiagnoses, iffy decisions, ones that got away. Tears may come to our eyes quite easily. We would like you to greet us with a smile, and not one of those tilted-head sad ones. We would like you to be open about your reactions to the situation. If you’re sad about it, say so. Many of us can talk about these things in a way that will be more fruitful than balloons or clowns or false cheeriness.

   8. “You’re not dying.”
   People who say that they are dying are sharing something profound with you. They are in the process of giving up ground in as comfortable and gracious a way as possible. This is just as true of people who have been diagnosed with some fatal condition as it is of people who announce it over the breakfast table without any specific diagnosis. Do not dismiss it. Do not contradict it. Ask questions. Offer alternative explanations for the facts, second opinions, vitamins, whatever. But don’t condescend to tell a person that they are not experiencing what they are experiencing. And don’t project your inability to deal with the facts on them.