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I hate visiting the sick

I hate visiting the sick

says Heather Redmond

Well don’t you? Doesn’t everyone? Ask around and you’ll get all the clichés going. Can’t stand sick people, can’t stand the smell of hospitals - get sick pigging out on grapes and chocolates, because the sick person probably isn’t going to touch them – no chance to read the magazines - rather be anywhere else doing anything else and jolly glad it’s not me. And so on.

Is this all a jokey cover-up, a modest disclaimer for doing our duty? Or not wanting to own up to that warm glow of satisfaction after a few hours self sacrifice? For some, perhaps, though not for me.


But think for a minute, what’s it like from the sick person’s point of view? Imagine the energy you need to entertain a virtuous visitor, to make it all worthwhile for them. All that having to biteone’s lip when they fuss around trying to wash the grapes and arrange the flowers. How often, in your exhaustion, do you just long to tell them to go – and possibly in a very rude manner. 

I have been reproved for my cynicism. Such inhumanity. And surely if those we love are sick we want to go and comfort them. And in turn, be comforted. 

Yes of course we do – mostly. And in my book you don’t dump your friends (or relatives) just because they’ve gone a bit loopy or dribble or have some scary disease.

The trouble is that as we get older, we get sick more often, and our friends and family get sick more often, and we build up an interdependency, a symbiotic relationship based on need. Last time in hospital I had a great need for new knickers and my good friend brought some in from Marks. Better far than grapes, and she does silence very well so the hour passed quickly and peacefully. 

Mainly, when I’m doing the visiting, it’s my overworked sense of duty that creates difficulties. This is not seen as a virtue by my daughters, who threaten to emigrate if I get involved with any more of the old ladies living down the road.  

I am painfully realising, through years of visiting friends and elderly relatives, one of them in dementia, that they are right. My motives are entirely suspect and go something like this. Why do I visit? Because I come from a long line of missionaries, so it’s in the family.  I have worked as a social worker, and am obviously genetically disposed to do good unto others.  

But I don’t enjoy it. And in obeying my genes I’m entirely ignoring the fact that people like to be helped in their own way and not according to my own fixed agenda; which is, I am sorry to say, get in, do good and get out as soon as possible. 

My sister in law, even in the later stages of dementia, can always be relied on to winkle out the worst excesses of my patronage. Marching into her darkened room one sunny day, I flung back the curtains. She reproved me severely for not asking her first.

This penetration of my defences let in the light in more ways than one and, fortunately for the sick of this world, I am learning to shift into a different gear before going in with my grapes. I am learning, at last, to enter their world, the small enclosed world of the sick room or hospital ward. I enter on their terms and need to be tuned to their agenda. This is particularly true for people in dementia whose world is often very different.  

I am pretty proud of this example: ‘What’s the baby called?’

‘Arthur’, I said, quick as a flash. Asking which baby and explaining I didn’t have one would have distressed my sister-in-law greatly and caused irritation in myself. 

But has all this enlightenment eased my antipathy to visiting the sick?

The answer, surprisingly, is yes. The process of shifting into a different gear has improved the experience no end.  I find it becomes easier with practice; more fun, less disturbing and more rewarding. 


Of course, I can’t speak for the subjects of my good intentions, but hopefully some of the above will rub off on them.

At the very least they get to eat their own grapes.



laterlife interest

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