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A diagnosis of cancer is devastating, not for the person receiving the diagnosis but for their family members, friends, and other loved ones as well. It's a life-changing event that fundamentally alters the circumstances in which people suddenly find themselves.
For those taking care of family members or others with cancer, this may mean assisting them at home as they go through treatments like chemotherapy or helping with their care if they become bedridden. Whatever the case may be, here are some helpful tips about things you should consider when caring for a bedridden patient.
1. Promote Good Grooming and Hygiene
One of the best things you can do to help any bedridden patient is to make sure that their basic hygiene and grooming needs are being addressed. This includes:
- Bathing – Some people may be able to get up and shower or take a bath with minor assistance, but others may be unable to do so. In this case giving a bed bath every day is also acceptable.
- Dental care – Again, some individuals may be able to brush their own teeth, while others may need help doing so.
- Clothing – Changing into fresh, clean clothes on a daily basis is important to ensure that dirt, germs, and bacteria do not have time to cause harm.
- Fingernails and toenails – The healing process can be itchy, and having long fingernails and toenails can lead to inadvertent scratches and other injuries. Long nails can also easily become ingrown or infected, so keeping them trimmed properly is important.
- Haircuts and shaving – Long and unkempt hair can lead to infestations of lice, bedbugs, and other parasites. Keeping hair, beards, and mustaches trimmed, brushed, and clean is a good way to discourage such problems.
In addition to staying healthy, all of these things will go a long way towards helping your loved one keep up their morale and self-esteem. The old adage that looking good helps people feel better about themselves is very true.
2. Prevent Bedsores
Bedsores (also known as pressure sores) are injuries to the skin and underlying tissues that result from sitting or lying in a single position for long periods of time. The prolonged sitting puts pressure on parts of the body such as the buttocks, legs, and thighs that can cause the skin to breakdown and break apart. The end result is that the area becomes extremely painful and uncomfortable and in the worst case scenario bedsores can become infected and result in major complications that can shorten life.
The good news, however, is that bedsores are very preventable. Consider using the following tips:
- If the individual spends the majority of time in bed, then take a few minutes out of every few hours to reposition them. If they can move on their own, encourage them to readjust themselves as well.
- Ask a doctor or nurse for advice on the best way to reposition the patient so that you don't cause injury to either of you while adjusting their position.
- Make sure you remain proactive and frequently check these common areas for bedsores (the sooner a bedsore is found the better the prognosis): the heels, ankles, hips, and tailbone.
3. Change Bed Linens Regularly
It may seem like a simple thing, but changing the linens makes a huge difference. Bedding can get soiled from food, bed baths, dirt, skin particles, and other debris.
So for reasons of hygiene and health, some things to keep in mind when changing bed linens:
- Since bedridden individuals spend more time in bed than most people, it is critical that bed linens (fitted sheet, top sheet, and pillowcases) be changed every 2 – 3 days.
- Make sure the new set of linens has been properly cleaned and laundered before use.
- Talk with your loved one about the material of the bed sheets being used. Is the fabric soft enough for them? Does it keep them warm enough, or perhaps too warm?
- Don’t forget blankets and comforters – you may not need to change and wash these quite as often as bedsheets, but changing them out regularly is important.
4. Ensure Good Nutrition
Everyone knows the importance of eating a healthy diet, and it’s even more critical in patients that are ill or recovering from treatment, such as surgery. Speak to the person’s doctor, nurse, or dietician to see what types of foods they recommend (in addition to the nutritional supplements they may already be taking).
- Try to provide a well-balanced diet, keeping track of nutrients and calories to ensure your loved one remains healthy.
- Cater to your loved-ones physiology – patients may prefer to eat in small snack sessions throughout the day, rather than having large meals at specified times.
- Keep water and healthy, non-sugary drinks on hand for them to sip throughout the day, to ensure they stay hydrated.
- Monitor eating habits and record meals in a journal for reference when speaking with a doctor, or in case you notice anything unusual after eating certain foods.
Note that certain foods may interact poorly with medications – for example, vegetables high in vitamin K, such as spinach and broccoli, can counteract the effects of some blood-thinners like warfarin. Therefore, it is important for caregivers to understand what healthy foods should be avoided.
As always, be sure to follow a doctor’s instructions about anything that a bedridden patient should or shouldn’t eat.
5. Craft a Comfortable Environment
Our immediate surroundings play a huge role in our emotional well-being, so take a few moments to make sure that the individual’s environment is as comfortable as possible.
- Ensure the room is well-lit, with natural light if possible – sunlight is a natural disinfectant!
- Keep passage to the bathroom easy and free of clutter.
- Place the bed within reach of a nightstand with easy access to an alarm, phone, book, food, and water.
- Air the room out from time to time, to get rid of stale air and allow fresh air to circulate.
- Keep distractions to a minimum, especially during rest periods, to ensure that the patient will be able to get the sleep they need.
In addition to the comforts listed above, take a few minutes each day just to sit down and chat with your loved one. Mental and emotional health is just as important as physical health.
6. Employ Patience and Empathy
Caring for a loved one can be very difficult. Even with the best of intentions it can be easy to lose patience, not feel appreciated, or become a little overwhelmed. Here are some ideas on how to avoid or handle those feelings when they hit you:
- Understand that treatments and physical effects of cancers like mesothelioma can really limit a person’s ability to perform normal physical activities. This can cause a great deal of anxiety, especially for people who have been independent up until now.
- Take time to communicate your feelings so you can both understand each other’s needs and goals better.
- Expect things to take longer than they would normally. Everyday tasks will require more energy from both your loved and yourself, and trying to rush things will only cause frustration and could even wind up hurting the patient.
- Watch for signs of fatigue in yourself, and understand your own limits. If you need to take a few moments for yourself to avoid potential conflicts or anger, it is better to do so than to lash out or nurse bad feelings.
Finding a way to remind yourself that you are there to help your loved one is a good way to start each day. Approaching the entire caregiving experience from a place of empathy and patience will help both you and your loved one in the long run.
7. Seek Help When You Need It
An important part of being a caregiver is knowing when you need to seek professional help to properly care for your loved one. If you are able, hire a nurse or another medical professional to help you with your caregiving duties. Keep an open line of communication with your loved one’s medical team too so that they can help you handle any complications as they arise.
Whether or not you are able to afford professional help, there are a number of support groups where caregivers can share ideas, tips, and stories about their own struggles. Sometimes, simply knowing that others are undergoing the same struggles can be enough to help you get through the days, weeks, and months. You can also learn from others’ experiences, which can ease the burden of feeling like you have to learn everything on your own from scratch.
Here are some caregiver support groups and resources you may want to check out:
Also, many caregivers and cancer patients share stories on the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance Facebook page. Come join the conversation!
Keep them Comfortable
Helping a bedridden patient – whether a family member, close friend, or someone else you know – can be physically and emotionally challenging, but it can also be a time to develop or strengthen bonds. The experience gives you an opportunity to do the single thing that any cancer sufferer will appreciate – being there for them and with them.
In the end, it’s all about making sure the person is as comfortable as possible and helping them receive the treatment they need, whether it’s recovering from a disease like cancer – and the invasive treatments required to fight it – or palliative care to help them manage as best as they can during their remaining days. Being attentive to their needs and helping to prevent or reduce pain will go a long way during this time.