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What Family Caregivers Should Bring (and Not Bring) to the Hospital

Be prepared for a loved one’s hospital stay with some advanced planning


spinner image Person checks off items on a list as they pack clothes into a duffel bag
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When a loved one is rushed to the hospital, things can move very quickly, and it can be difficult to process everything that’s going on, to stay calm and make a plan. When my mother, who suffers from dementia and advanced Parkinson’s disease, was taken to a hospital this summer, it simply didn’t occur to me to bring some of her basic necessities such as medications, which took more than a day for the hospital to provide.

As family caregivers know, our loved ones have very specific needs that we’ve learned to support and attend to over many months and years. Even the best-trained nurse or doctor will not be able to immediately identify someone’s needs as soon as they’re admitted, and even if they could, they likely wouldn’t have the capacity to attend to all of these needs.

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Elizabeth Bailey, a patient advocate and the author of The Patient’s Checklist, says overworked health care providers and understaffed facilities present a series of obstacles to good care. Bailey says that during a hospital stay, whether brief or extended, you need to be your loved one’s best advocate to better manage, monitor and participate in their care. She adds that this advocacy starts at home.

Preparation at home before a hospital stay

Because a crisis can happen at any moment, Bailey suggests preparing and having an emergency go bag at the ready because “not having these things can usher in a series of crises for the hospitalized person.”

Emergency go bag

  • Copy (front and back) of your ID and health insurance
  • Separate pair of glasses
  • List of medications
  • Several days’ worth of medications (hospital will determine if the meds can be used)
  • Cellphone and charger
  • Paper that says if loved one requires dentures, glasses, hearing aids or other medical devices

What to bring to the hospital

In addition to an emergency go bag, consider the sort of items your loved one relies on day to day. It may not be necessary (or possible) to bring them on the first day, but if the hospitalization lasts more than a day or two, they could prove very useful. In the case of my mother’s hospitalization, which lasted a week before she was transferred to rehab, I brought her a special water bottle that was easier for her to drink out of. As my mom has never been a TV watcher, I brought her books and magazines to read and ensured they were always within reach. I considered bringing her iPad so she could listen to music, but decided it was too expensive to risk it going missing.

Liz Ozminkowski, an emergency room nurse at one of the largest hospitals in Milwaukee, suggests bringing additional clothing — underwear in particular — as hospitals do not provide it, nor do they offer laundry services. She says blankets and pillows may be helpful, as hospital rooms can get very cold, and the temperature cannot be easily regulated. If the patient walks around a lot, Ozminkowski says, consider bringing a robe or sweatpants that can worn under their gown.

Bringing familiar, comforting items (such as a favorite photograph or music) can help prevent hospital delirium, as can shutting the hospital room’s door to block out hall noise, establishing a normal routine and getting sunlight daily.

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What to leave (or send back) home

According to Ozminkowski, a patient’s belongings are usually recorded and sent along with the patient to the room. If a patient coming into an ER seems out of it for any reason — be it dementia or substance abuse — their belongings may be locked up, but typically, they are sent along to the assigned floor nurse who will determine what to do with them.

If valuables (such as jewelry, a wallet or a cellphone) were admitted with the patient, Ozminkowski suggests either retrieving these belongings and taking them home or asking staff to record them and lock them up.

Keeping track of items in the hospital

Some items fall into a gray area, including cellphones, which can be very useful but can get lost in the shuffle. Ozminkowski notes that some hospital rooms don’t have phones in them, so a cellphone really is the only lifeline for some patients. However, if your loved one leaves their cellphone on the bedsheets, it could inadvertently get thrown in the wash. Though this is especially a risk for someone with dementia, it could happen to any patient. My brother (who doesn’t suffer from dementia) lost his phone this way during a previous hospital stay.

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Bailey says that if a person requires hearing aids or glasses to communicate with staff, they won’t be able to advocate for themselves without them. She says it is critical to consider what the patient’s baseline needs are to interact with the world. Unfortunately, hospital staffers are so overworked “that they often don’t consider these things, and this is where family caregivers come into play as being crucial to understanding and monitoring the person’s needs,” she says.

Ozminkowski agrees and recommends ensuring nurses and aides know of any expensive, necessary items, including dentures, hearing aids and cellphones, and encouraging your family member to store them somewhere safe. She suggests putting them on an immovable object such as a bedside table instead of a food tray, where items may get tossed out. 

“Every hospital has a whiteboard that is often just used to write the nurse and shift change information, but families can actually use the board as a communication tool with hospital staff,” Bailey says. She suggests that family members write their contact information on the board, along with particular needs of the patient.

spinner image A whiteboard with a list of reminders
Cassandra Brooklyn installed a sign in her mother's room so staff knew her specific needs.
Courtesy Cassandra Brooklyn

Ozminkowski notes that even if a patient brings a cellphone, the battery could die, or the phone may not get good reception in the hospital. If a patient can’t remember the numbers of loved ones and can’t access them on their cellphone, having that information written on the whiteboard assists both the patient and hospital staff trying to reach family members.

Though it may seem obvious that a person admitted with glasses or hearing aids would rely on these devices, when I visited my mom on the second day of her hospitalization, I found her glasses on a side table while she stared off at a wall, unable to make out what was in front of her. I asked her nurse why she wasn’t wearing her glasses, and he said he didn’t realize she needed them. I wish I had thought to make notes on the room’s whiteboard.

In fact, I loved Bailey’s whiteboard suggestion so much that I bought one for my mother’s room in the memory care facility she recently moved into. Sometimes, we simply write important medical care information on the board; other times, we let my 7-year-old niece draw pictures on it for Grandma. It gives me peace of mind knowing that information is easily accessible.

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