Being a Bikur Cholim Telephone Visitor

The ubiquitous telephone! How many of us have gotten calls that lift our spirits or warm our hearts? With forethought and skill the telephone can be used for bikur cholim in a meaningful and efficient way. Many points of visiting are the same whether face-to-face or via the telephone, but some are different. Both require us to be mindful of the ways we use ourselves so that we are most helpful when we visit.

People who are ill, have disabilities, are elderly, and/or homebound may frequently find themselves increasingly isolated. As a telephone visitor, you can bring hope to someone in need—including the need to know that someone cares. This can be done through a casual conversation, news from the community, an interesting story, or even a few shared moments of silence. Visitors benefit by performing a valuable mitzvah and often gain a sense of satisfaction and self-worth. In these ways, telephone visiting can play a vital role in the life of our community.

Techniques for the Telephone Visitor

Those you call should be prepared for the brief, limited type of contact you will be making with them. Both caller and recipient need to know, appreciate, and accept these boundaries. Within a synagogue, understanding the nature of the call can be communicated through an article in the news bulletin, through the rabbi, or through the people in the community getting the word out about the program and finding out who needs a call.

Some communities have people calling when someone returns from the hospital, when finished with Shiva, or has a new baby. Calls can be daily to check on someone’s well being or weekly to lift someone’s spirit.

Beginning a telephone relationship

  • Keep in mind your main job is to develop a friendly, trusting and limited telephone relationship.
  • Agree on a time and day of the phone call.
  • Be sure to have emergency number and emergency plan if there is no answer.
  • For the first few calls, continue to formally introduce yourself until you feel the person easily recognizes you and understands why you are calling.
  • Record any specific information or current issues in your person’s life so you may remember and refer to it the next time you call.

Telephone conversation may require verbal feedback, “I’m listening,” as commentary to reassure the person you called that you are “with them” in the absence of face to face interaction. Silence, under the circumstances of telephone visiting, is not necessarily golden!

Suggested conversation for the telephone call

  • Formally introduce yourself until the person easily recognizes you, i.e., “Hello, this is ______, your Telephone Visitor,” from Synagogue or Congregation, etc.”
  • Follow with questions such as, “I’m calling to say hello and want to know if everything is okay,” “How are you today?” “How are you feeling?” “Anything you think I might need to know?” etc.
  • Close your conversation with, “Okay, I just wanted to check in (wish you a good Shabbos…) and will call you again ________.”

Ending a Visit — Saying Goodbye

Establish the following routine from the first phone call:

  • Keep track of the time
  • Before it is time to say goodbye, prepare by saying something like “It is almost time for me to say goodbye for today.”
  • Review the day and time of next visit, perhaps mentioning what you might plan to discuss. Express your enjoyment of the time spent that day.

Should there appear to be a problem developing in the person’s life

Clearly there will be those times when something is happening, and obtaining more information during your phone call is appropriate.

Once you have a sense or a picture of the problem, state that you are concerned about the person and what he/she is saying to you. Explain that you would like to help and the best way you can do this is to share what has been told to you with the Coordinator or Rabbi confidentially. If he/she agrees to this, call the Coordinator or Rabbi.

The person might be resistant to this. It is important to respect their wishes and privacy. In this case, discuss the situation in confidence with a member of your Bikur Cholim Committee or synagogue so that together you can strategize how you might proceed.

Participation as a bikur cholim visitor will bring you satisfaction, growth, and strength of spirit. The work is rewarding. Keep in mind the importance of knowing your strengths and limitations. Our personal experiences with and feelings about illness, disability, aging, death and dying all influence our reactions and relationships to those we visit.

On Boundaries

“When we have good intentions and are clear that what we are doing has merit, then when we set boundaries we need not be apologetic, and there is no shame in that for ourselves or for the other. Healthy boundaries are established when the attributes of lovingkindness and strength are in balance…”

Rabbi Uzi Weingarten, “Communicating with Compassion” 2003

Signs you may be too involved

  1. You are distracted at home and find yourself frequently wanting to talk about the person you are visiting. You are unable to get the patient off your mind.
  2. You are overwhelmed by your own feelings of fear, anger and helplessness.
  3. You find yourself saying “that could be me.”

Factors influencing burn-out

  1. Lack of boundaries of what you/your group can and can not do.
  2. Unrealistic expectations, spreading yourself too thin or wanting to ‘fix’ people’s problems.
  3. Identifying too closely with a patient’s experience, reminding you of yourself or a loved one who suffered.

Saying “NO”

It is especially hard to say NO to two groups of people: people for whom we feel sorry and people for whom we care. Remember your role, your intentions and your limits. But when asked to do something that you do not feel comfortable doing, it can still be hard to decline.

Be as brief as possible: Simply state a legitimate reason for your refusal, “I really don’t have the time,” and avoid elaborate explanations, justifications, and “lies” (e.g. “I can’t because my mother is coming in from out of town” or “My child is ill”).

Actually say the word “No” when declining: The word “no” has more power and is less ambiguous than, “Well, I just don’t think so” or “We’ll see” or “I can’t just now.” You might need to say “NO” several times before the person hears you.

What you can do if you suspect you are burning-out

  1. Talk to your bikur cholim leader or peers. Get support. You are not alone.
  2. Go to a training. Figure out if you need to play a different role in your group.
  3. Take some time off.
  4. Set realistic goals

Stress Management Tips

  1. Nurture yourself. List 5 things that you enjoy doing. Choose something that inspires or sustains (e.g. exercise, buy flowers, take a relaxing bath, nap, see a movie, listen to music, gardening).
  2. Utilize deep breathing and relaxation exercises.
  3. Journaling. Write out your thoughts. Be spontaneous. You can record what is stressing you or whatever surfaces as you put pen to paper.

Remember: Think positively of your accomplishments. Compliment yourself!

Jewish tradition offers guidelines for Bikur Cholim

Please contact us at 212.632.4730 or if we can assist you or your group in better performing the mitzvah of bikur cholim. There are also many meaningful opportunities locally for visitors or volunteers throughout the service programs of The Jewish Board.