Health Advice



Family caregivers can help shape the outcomes for their loved ones – an ICU nurse explains their vital role

Courtney Graetzer, Vanderbilt University, The Conversation on

Published in Health & Fitness

The floor nurse had just told me that my new patient – let’s call her Marie – would not stop screaming.

Marie landed in the intensive care unit where I am a bedside nurse because she was too agitated and needed more oxygen. We immediately tried to fit her with a more advanced oxygen mask, but the screaming continued and her oxygen level worsened. No matter how much I comforted her, it was not my hand she wanted to hold. She was screaming for her daughter, April, who was on her way.

April had been Marie’s caregiver at home for the past few years after Marie was diagnosed with end-stage Alzheimer’s. April is Marie’s familiar face, her source of comfort when she gets disoriented. Now Marie had been admitted to the hospital for pneumonia, and April had not left her side.

As a seasoned bedside critical care nurse, I see firsthand the benefits that family caregivers bring to patient care in the hospital. I also witness the emotional stress that caregivers experience when their loved one comes to the ICU.

After years of helping families and physicians navigate the complicated course of an ICU hospital stay, I have some advice for caregivers to take with them.

From making medical decisions to advocating for their loved one, family caregivers have many important roles when their loved one is in the hospital. Their presence not only provides a sense of security, but also strongly influences a patient’s response to treatment.


For example, Marie refused to take walks during physical therapy until we found out from April that she felt safest in her pink New Balance shoes, which April brought to the hospital. April’s unique knowledge of Marie’s specific needs proved to be invaluable to guiding Marie’s treatment plan at the hospital.

Including the family in the patient’s treatment plan, also known as family-centered care, can help shorten a patient’s hospital stay and can even reduce hospital costs. However, caregivers carry heavy emotional burdens while supporting loved ones at the hospital.

In fact, family caregivers are at high risk of developing long-term psychological health problems. Up to 70% of first-degree relatives of ICU survivors suffer from anxiety symptoms, more than a third suffer from depression, and many can experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

There are ways to help ease this emotional burden, and most of them come down to consistent and open communication between the patient, their caregivers and the medical team.


swipe to next page


blog comments powered by Disqus