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Visiting a Friend After a Stroke

Updated on June 17, 2017
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

It is difficult when someone you know suffers a stroke. It is extra hard if they are as young as my friend was. Here are some ways to cope.

Hand-Holding Offers Comfort and Reassurance

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A Stroke Can Occur at Any Age

A stroke happens suddenly and has life-changing effects. It is mainly a disease that occurs in older people, but a significant number of younger people are also affected. A friend of mine suffered a stroke when she was 50 years old, and the shock to her friends and family was devastating. She is still unable to speak or feed herself even now, many years later. She is quadriplegic.

Medical professionals concentrate on giving emotional support to family members. In contrast, friends and acquaintances are left to process the upsetting news for themselves. I experienced an overwhelming sense of helplessness. It is difficult to know what to do and how to act when you are visiting someone who is unable to respond.

Hold on to the fact that the person you knew and loved is still present. Just because they cannot speak or smile does not mean they are not pleased to see you and excited by your visit. For an understanding of what stroke patients need from their friends, I recommend My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor. The book is written by a health professional who had a stroke at the very young age of 37.

Guidelines When Communicating With a Loved One After a Stroke

Empathy
Understanding
Don't assume they can't understand what is being said.
Never say anything you wouldn't want your loved one to hear.
Include them in communication even if he or she seems unable to speak or understand.
Treat them with dignity.
Know when your loved one is tired.
Respect your loved one's privacy.
Encourage them to be as independent as they can be.
Give him or her an interesting and stimulating setting.
www.allinahealth.org

What is a Stroke?

My First Visit to a Friend of Many Years Who Had Had a Stroke

I saw Hope today. Her hair is still jet black with the fringe that is just slightly too long. Her dark eyes have deepened with maturity but they light up as I talk enough for two. I chatter incessantly and an hour passes quickly enough. Was it really forty years ago we were in the same class? Where has the time gone? We were best friends for two years at junior high school. Hope was known for being sporty and energetic, while I was the brainbox who read lots of books. Then her family moved away and we lost touch. All these years later, we have met up again, but now I am the active one, and Hope is immobile. Her husband joins us and offers me coffee. He sits next to Hope and her eyes lock onto his as he tenderly strokes her hand.

I take a coffee from the tray and the silent caregiver wipes the dribble from Hope’s mouth.

Oh yes, did I forget to mention there is someone else in the room? The caregiver. A semi-stranger.

Hope Over Adversity: My Friend Needs Care 24/7

The presence of Hope’s caregiver pierces the fragile make-believe that everything is normal. The caregiver is part of a team of professionals that attend to Hope’s physical functions 24/7. My attempts at cheerful conversation are broken as I pause to drink my coffee. Hope cannot move her head or speak but her eyes slide longingly towards my cup. For the last year Hope has been fed through a tube. Her stroke has caused almost total paralysis.

The caregiver fussily tells me Hope cannot drink from a mug. Irritated by the comment Hope’s husband blows on his own drink to cool it and then holds the cup to Hope’s mouth.

And she tentatively sips; once. This is a first for Hope since her stroke and a big step forward. I see a cheeky glint in her eye that seems to taunt her care-worker. Inside that paralysed body, the old Hope is fighting back.

Stroke is the leading cause of serious, long-term disability in the United States.

Nearly three-quarters of all strokes occur in people over the age of 65. The risk of having a stroke more than doubles each decade after the age of 55.

Strokes can and do occur at ANY age. Nearly one fourth of strokes occur in people under the age of 65.

— US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Coming to Terms with Disability

When a friend has a severe long-term illness or illness your emotions go into overdrive. You react in a similar way to someone who is bereaved. It is not unusual for you to experience the five stages of grieving. These are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Denial: At first you do not want to believe that your best friend has had a stroke. You feel numb and shocked.

Anger: Reality strikes and you feel helpless. You hit out at other people to vent your anger at the illness. This is the stage I was at when I wrote about visiting Hope and resenting the presence of her care-worker.

Bargaining: This is the stage where you may have “If only I had done such-and-such, I could have prevented this illness” type of thoughts. Or you may turn to prayer to ask for a speedy recovery of your friend.

Depression: Remembering the happy times, crying over the loss of what might have been. Talking about this with other people who knew Hope helped me cope with these sad feelings. Occasionally I still feel sad about the loss of my “old” friend, but I am mainly now at the acceptance stage of the grieving process.

Acceptance: This stage can take many months or even years to reach. This is the end of the grieving process and is an acceptance of the reality of the situation. You are able to move forward with your life without dwelling on the loss of the “old” friendship. You have not lost that person forever.

You may have to make changes to the way you communicate. Talking and listening, eye contact and touch are ways we interact with each other. When your friend loses their ability to do these things, it is easy to stop doing them too. But you can still talk and listen, smile and nod, and hold your friend’s hand. These small gestures offer reassurance and comfort and will help both of you to remain good friends.

Old Photos Can Spark Memories

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How to Have a Conversation with a Stroke Survivor

It can be daunting to have a conversation with someone who cannot respond. Here are some tips that will make the task easier and more enjoyable for both of you.

  • Speak slowly and pause often. Give your friend time to digest each idea before moving onto the next.

  • Do not shout or talk more loudly than you would normally. Your friend is not deaf! They can hear you but may not always understand the meaning of the words.

  • Speak to your friend in an adult manner. Do not talk down to them, they have not become a child. They may have lost their ability to respond, but they have not lost their mind.

  • Use visual aids to help the conversation. You could use photos or objects, maps or a calendar.

Stages of Stroke Recovery

Further Information on Communicating With Stroke Survivors

The following organizations have advice and information on their websites for stroke survivors, their families and friends.

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  • Peggy W profile image

    Peggy Woods 2 months ago from Houston, Texas

    This is good information to know. We once had a friend who suffered a stroke at a relatively early age. Sadly he died prior to gaining back full mobility and ease of speaking.

    My mother-in-law also died after suffering a series of strokes. It can be devastating to not only the person who has had the stroke, but family members as well.