A relative to ICU patient shares ideas on how to engage family, friends and volunteers.


By Helle Sorensen, Communications Officer

in conversation with


Suzanne Askham, Healer and Meditation Facilitator

Editor’s note: We acknowledge that Trusts have initiatives in place for engaging relatives, and that resources are limited for adopting new ones. We also acknowledge that intensive care staff are working hard to establish a trusting and productive relationship with patients and their relatives. The ideas put forward in this post are a reminder of why it is important to engage relatives and to provide inspiration of what can be done.

Suzanne has previously shared her experiences and given her advice on how relatives can manage their stress – read her post in Huffington Post. Here, she shares her ideas on how NHS and staff members can nourish – and benefit from – the inclusion of family, friends and volunteers.

Relatives and stress

Green tea, according to researchers, has a calming effect on our mind. Theanine, an amino acid found in green tea leaves, helps us relax and reduces anxiety. Suzanne Askham is sipping green tea when we meet. It makes sense.  It helped her cope with her stress when she found herself in the shocking situation of living in a critical care unit for three months when her teenage son, Tim, became seriously ill:

“You encounter that overwhelming nightmarish feeling that something that shouldn’t be happening, is happening. And there is that air around you, found in hospitals, perhaps caused by an accumulation of fear.”

Important to be present

Tim’s learning difficulties meant that Suzanne needed to stay by his bedside almost continually for the first month. She spent that time observing and reflecting – above all, she was conscious of the other relatives around her:

“I found that a minority of the relatives were aware of the nature and importance of their presence. I saw every possible reaction – anger, fear, frustration. The medical world is difficult to understand for an outsider, and although the work of the team had absolutely no faults, you cannot help but feel a sense of urgency, exclusion and helplessness.”

Suzanne felt the overriding importance of her presence as a relative. She felt that choosing love rather than fear, and presence rather than distraction, improved her own and Tim’s well-being and, ultimately, recovery.

The list

Here are 10 ideas on how your Trust can get the most out of the presence of relatives and volunteers:

  1. Build up a volunteer unit

Relatives make a huge difference to an ICU patient. Sadly, though, not all patients will have a relative by their side.  By building up and supporting a strong volunteer unit, all patients can benefit from the caring and reassuring presence of a friend. The role of the volunteer is different from that of staff members – they get special training and can devote their time to the task of being present. Learn how to set up a support group.

  1. Appoint a designated staff member

A unit can benefit from a designated staff member that can oversee patient and relative well-being. The person should be chosen on the basis of their empathy rather than merits or senior level.

  1. Tear down the glass door

“In a previous ICU experience, in the United States, we had a morning meeting with the staff every day,” says Suzanne. With some relatives, it may be appropriate to include them in planning the approach to treatment, and even ask for their advice. “If relatives are treated as part of the group, they will feel and be empowered”.

  1. Put relatives to work

If a relative can perform a task, let them help out.

  1. Teach relatives

As a staff member, you can benefit from explaining to relatives what you are doing. Both patients and relatives observe what you do, and it can help to understand the conversations going on around them (both verbal and non-verbal).

  1. Encourage exploring

Encourage relatives to be curious about, and to explore, the hospital’s facilities. For example, is there a garden they can visit? A place where people can draw or play music? If the patient is capable of these ventures, it can provide a welcome distraction and brings the family together around a different experience.

  1. Help relatives find their inner voice

“It’s difficult to compute and understand everything that is going on, and you do feel helpless most of the time. It relieves both patient and relative from stress if relatives are encouraged to anchor themselves in the present. ”Encourage relatives to seek out places in the hospital where they can find some peace and quiet – a garden, a library or a meditation room. This enables them to gather their thoughts and gain clarity”, Suzanne explains.

  1. Surroundings

Surroundings in a hospital are often functional. Think alternatively. There is evidence that surroundings does matter, e.g. that lavender scent minimise stress levels. And it can be included without compromising functionality and health and safety procedures.

  1. Be vocal about yourself

If you are ok about it, then do not be afraid to open up and share your own stories, thoughts and experiences – in short tell relatives about yourself. Patients and relatives will feel trusted and give their trust in return.

  1. Be inspired by the colleagues who are good at this

We all have our strengths. Some of the staff members may excel in reassuring and engaging patients and relatives – bring them forward, let them train others.

Also, be conscious of hidden staff skills. One staff member may have experience with yoga, another with meditation – give them time and support, and let them share that ability.

If you have time for more reading, you can check out these links:

And feel free to discuss these ideas – or share your own – by posting a comment.

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