If have an intimidating medical appointment, it is always wise to take a loved one. When you are in pain or worried, you miss stuff. You forget details. You start thinking about the ramifications of one statement and miss the next 3. Having a backup with you is great because you can have someone to fill in the gaps. It needs to be someone level-headed, kind, patient and who listens well.
Taking a parent, a spouse or a friend to the doctor can be hard and has a specific requirement of you. Having been on both sides of most of these scenarios I can tell you that your behavior is critical to the loved one who needs you. Accompanying an adult to a medical appointment is fraught with complications because you are trying to be helpful without treating them like a child. It can be a hard-line to walk.
What should you know?
Know Your Place
This might seem obvious, but it isn’t. Talk to each other before you set out. Know what the patient needs and what they expect. Make sure the support person knows exactly what they need to do.
I used to drag my husband or my dad to every initial diagnosis or treatment consultation so they could help me remember. These appointments usually involve a lot of new information. Remember to ask all of my questions, remember what the doctor said. And to react, to listen to what the doctor was saying, process it and ask the right questions. Pain slowed me down, so if I was alone, I would leave the room and then everything would occur to me on my way home; not helpful.
I didn’t expect them to take over, or take charge. I took one of them, because after years of hospital stays and surgeries, my mother had become more emotional than I was, and struggled to keep those feelings under control. Having someone who gets more upset than you do is not helpful.
The role that my support person played changed based on my level of pain and my strength in each situation. Most people’s needs change according to their health. So it is worth establishing the roles and boundaries every time. You are a team and communication is everything to maintaining respect.
Some doctors have some very strange experiences with loved ones taking over the conversation, steering the treatment discussion or making everything about themselves. This is absolutely not okay. As the loved one, you are there to document, remember and support, not to manipulate or sidetrack. As the patient, you should never take anyone with you who might take over; you need to have an open and honest conversation.
If you, the support person, are involved in making the appointment, you should be aware of concerns about timing, whether the patient is vocal about them or not.
Many people, especially the elderly, may prefer early morning appointments because they prefer not to eat or drink first. Whether they are willing to discuss it or not, many people worry about needing to use the washroom at an inopportune time. Or of having an accident. Some people are too proud to discuss it, but may want to book their appointments to reduce any risk of embarrassment. Be sensitive of this.
Others prefer their appointments a little later in the day. If your loved one experiences a lot of pain or mobility issues, they may need more time to get out of the house. They may want more time to bathe and dress slowly, to eat and to have a pain-killer start working before setting out. Be aware that it can take a couple of hours to get ready to go to the doctor if you are hurting a lot.
State of Mind
Maybe you are taking someone for a quick checkup that they’ve had a dozen times before. In that case, everybody is probably relatively relaxed and it should be easy. But don’t count on it. Going to the doctor, even routine appointments can be traumatic for some people. Hence the white coat syndrome, where the very act of having their blood pressure taken causes some people’s to rise.
If you are taking them for a procedure, diagnosis, getting test results or to discuss treatment, it will definitely be stressful, that is likely why you are along. Pay attention to their signals.
Be a calming influence. If they don’t want to talk, don’t talk. Or, if they are okay to talk about something else, do it. Even if they want to babble on about nothing, that’s okay too. And if they want to talk about their fears listen. But remember, this is about them, not you, so give them some room to do what they need to do and be supportive. The anticipation of the worst can be the hardest part of the day.
If they take you into the appointment with them, keep your cool. This is someone you care about, so it might be hard, but the worst thing you can do is freak out or get upset. You are there to be their rock. You can lose your mind later. Right now, you need to be their extra set of eyes and ears. So, take a deep breath, stay calm and be that friend.
Respect Their Autonomy
Remember that this is an adult, with a working brain of their own, not a child. It is too easy for some of us to walk in and take charge, and accidentally rob someone of their dignity. Especially when the person we love is vulnerable. That said, it is okay to help too. The best thing you can do is ask permission. If they are upset, scared or in pain, they might be grateful if you help them check in, or do the paperwork. But they may just want you to be silently supportive. Ask them and then listen.
Be aware that if you are there with your loved one, even many professionals will talk to you, not them. Not cool, I know, but it happens a lot. So if you see this, step back, literally, take a step back, or push your chair back and take yourself out of the conversation. You should still listen and ask questions, if appropriate, but likely this physical action will address the problem.
If you are the patient, then it is important that you send your support person the right signals. You can ask them to wait outside, or make sure that you are the one directly in front of the medical provider. Or maybe create a secret signal, like tapping their forearm, if they start taking over, or conversely, if you need them to take over. Make sure that you are clear with them and vice versa.
Some doctors, concerned for your privacy, will ask your loved one to leave when they talk to you. You can request that they stay, if you are comfortable with that. If you do not want your personal details discussed in front of them, then you are best to agree with the doctor and tell your loved one you will meet them in the waiting room.
Remember that everyone’s needs are different. Not just emotionally, physically as well. To be a great support person, you need to keep that in mind, and pay attention.
- Should you drop them at the door, park the car and come back or can they walk from the car? Once in, can they make it from the entrance to their appointment and anywhere else they have to go or will you need to borrow a wheelchair?
Sometimes appointments will have you running from one end of the building and back; not a pleasant scenario if you are not getting around well.
- Will the appointment, test, or procedure be exhausting or painful and will they be in a very different state afterwards than before? If so, what do you need to do differently afterwards?
Even X-Rays can hurt, if they need you to contort into a difficult position, so it is possible that you may need to adjust your return plan accordingly.
- Do you need to fetch and carry anything?
Get water, coffee, food, forms, blanket. If they need it, get it. But don’t hover like a hummingbird.
- Do you need to collect and keep track of any information or instructions for them during or after the appointment? Is there a lot of information; do you need to take notes?
These appointments often result in a lot of printouts, instructions, prescriptions and the like. It can get overwhelming, so making sure you have it all and take notes can be very helpful.
- Will they want to stop for food or drink or at a pharmacy afterwards, or will they just want to go home?
You never know how you will feel when everything is done. So be ready to sit and talk about what happened, to pick up prescriptions or even to just get them home to lie down, depending on how things go.
And as the patient, communicate what you know. If you are tired, and not sure about the walk say so, it is nothing to be embarrassed about. Should you need a drink and can’t leave, ask. If you changed your mind about lunch and just want to go home, tell them. Communication is everything. Remember, they are there because they care.
Check out the Pre-Surgery Post Series for some sample questions