This information is included here as a resource for medical personnel or family members who must provide care to a blind or low-vision person who is hospitalized. It was originally prepared by Carol M. McCarl at the request of a local hospital when staff members had questions and concerns about assisting blind and visually impaired patients.
When you enter the room of a patient who is either low vision or blind, address the person by name if you know it, and identify yourself by name and church or organization you represent. If someone else is in the room, too, avoid such inquiries as, “Does he want the TV on?”
Questions and comments should be made directly to the patient, not through a third party. Walk over to the side of the bed or chair and continue the conversation with the patient, staying in one place while you speak. It is difficult for a visually impaired person to concentrate on facing a speaker who continually moves around.
When you are finished visiting, it is appropriate to say goodbye with a tap on the person’s arm or a handshake or even a tap on the foot as you go by, depending on the circumstances. Remember, a blind person does not have the advantage of seeing your smile or wave or other affirmative body languages that you might ordinarily use.
When you enter a room, always speak to the patient telling him or her what you plan to do. It is particularly important to describe what is on a tray when delivering a meal. This is common courtesy for someone who cannot glance at you and automatically see what you are carrying.
Whether you are a visitor or member of the staff, please take time to describe anything new that may have been added to the room since the patient arrived. If the patient’s chart is available in the room, ask if he would like to have it read if this information is regularly available to sighted patients. Explain any written instructions that may be posted in the patient’s room.
When assisting a visually impaired patient from his or her bed to walk to the bathroom, to a chair, or down the hall, always offer your elbow. The visually impaired person will take your arm with his fingers holding the inside of your arm, just above the elbow and his thumb resting on the outside of your arm.
When you get to a doorway, identify the door by saying, The door is opening away from us on the right, or the door is opening toward us on the left. Then pass through the door before the person you are guiding and let him catch the door as he passes it.
Orienting the Patient to the Room
When the visually impaired or blind patient first enters a room, let him examine the furnishings in the room. This can be done by allowing him to trail the wall to learn the path from the doorway to the hall, the doorway to the bathroom, and the location of windows, chairs, closets, etc. The patient might want to square off at the foot of his bed, for example, so he can line up to cross the room.
If the patient is accustomed to using a cane, he should be encouraged to use it in his room if he chooses to do so. An adequate orientation for a patient at the beginning can foster independence throughout the stay. Orient the patient to the controls of the bed, paging system and TV and radio. By showing the operations of these items, you will learn about the patient’s independence and may discover some time-saving measures. In all cases, be sure to ask the patient if he or she needs assistance. It will then be up to the patient to communicate those needs.
Difficulties sometimes arise when staff or other visitors assume they know what the patient needs. When dealing with a specific orientation to objects like chairs, the sink, or other fixtures, remember the patient sees with his hands.
When you are guiding a patient who has your elbow and you want him to locate the sink, put your hand on the front of the sink and ask him to move his hand along your arm to the sink. When he is standing squarely in front of the sink, other directions can be given regarding the room. You might say, “When you are facing the sink, the toilet is to your left. When you are seated on the toilet, the paper is on your right, etc.”
When guiding a person to a chair, place his hand on the arm of a lounge chair or the back of a desk chair. Let the individual examine the tray table that slides over a patient’s lap when meals are served.
Relax. This patient might be a new friend in the making. He or she is used to being blind or visually impaired, except in the case of a recent trauma which may have caused the vision loss.
In most cases, the individual is familiar with living with diminished sight. The best way to carry on the conversation is to stick to topics of interest rather than the conditions of the patient. Reporting some local news or an event you witnessed takes the person away from himself momentarily.
You will naturally show interest in the progress of his health. Just before you leave, ask if there is anything you can do to help. He might need to review how to operate the TV, find something he may have dropped, or other small assists. Again, consideration can be your guide.
Allaying Your Doubts
Remembering that your concept of what a blind person can do may be far from the ability of a particular patient, ask for information instead of presuming.
If you lost your sight tomorrow, you would still be the same person with capabilities and choices. Let this new acquaintance who happens to be blind maintain his or her independence during the stay in the hospital. It will make your visitor work more pleasant and the patient will be treated with the same dignity you would hope to receive if your roles were reversed.
Written and Compiled by Carol M. McCarl