Recovering from surgery is a journey that affects not only your physical health but also your emotional and mental health. Creating a healing space for patients in postoperative recovery improves safety, comfort, and peace of mind.
The design and environmental choices we make inside a home—including lighting, sound, art, and temperature—can help or hurt the healing process. We spoke to the following experts in the field to create this guide on how to design the ultimate nurturing space for a surgery patient in recovery:
- Maud Low, Ph.D., clinical assistant nursing professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst
- Athina Papadopoulou, Ph.D., assistant professor of architecture, health, and design at New York Institute of Technology
- Kendra Ordia, assistant professor of interior design at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln
- Ray Pentecost, DrPH, director of the Center for Health Systems & Design at Texas A&M University
How to Prepare the Home Before Surgery
You should ideally start creating the patient’s healing space well before their operation. Here are some steps to take before the patient undergoes surgery.
Consult with a Health Care Provider
The recovery process will look different for everyone, as it depends on factors unique to the surgery and the patient. For that reason, the patient’s health care provider should be your first point of contact when curating the healing space. Discuss any pre-surgery concerns and get a professional opinion on what home improvements or modifications will best support the patient for their specific procedure.
Safety-Proof the Home and Make It Accessible
For patients recovering from surgery, physical safety is the most important environmental issue, says Low.
“Consider where [the patient] needs to ambulate and what makes that trip safe. For example, are there stairs to traverse? Are the bathroom and kitchen on the same floor as [the] bed?” Low offers.
Simple accessibility modifications can make daily tasks easier for recovering surgery patients. Papadopoulou emphasizes, “Unfortunately, beyond requirements for accessibility in public places, as an architect, we often don’t think while we design how anyone at any time can experience difficulties in mobility or other abilities, making our houses hard to live in recovery conditions.”
Again, you’ll want to consult with the patient’s healthcare provider to ensure the home improvements make sense for the individual needs. But here are some ways to make a home safer for those recovering from various types of surgery:
- Declutter: Keeping the space organized and clutter-free reduces the chance of falls, helps to reduce anxiety, and encourages productivity.
- Eliminate tripping hazards: Tidy up cords by pinning them to the wall, clean floors of dust and debris, remove unnecessary furniture, and secure rugs and carpets with nonslip pads to reduce the chance of slips and falls.
- Install handrails: Depending on the type of surgery, you may want to install handrails and grab bars near the stairs, in the bathroom, and near the bed.
- Improve lighting: Keeping the home well-lit will help prevent accidents and can also improve mood and health. Increased natural light has been shown to promote better sleep and faster patient recovery. Ordia notes, “Provide access to daylight to assist in regulating sleep-wake cycles and connection to shifting light patterns throughout the day.”
- Move the bed to the first floor: If it’s not already, you may want to move the patient’s bed to the first floor so they don’t have to go up and down stairs.
Arrange for a Caregiver or Support System
Having a designated caregiver or support team is essential to surgery recovery. As Pentecost points out, “The real issue is whether, whatever they need, they have a support system that can provide that level of assistance.” Caregivers can help with physical tasks and provide emotional support to patients who may be struggling with their lack of independence post-operation.
If you are the primary caregiver for a more intrusive surgery, consider reaching out to others or an in-home medical professional to help you manage care. Keep in mind that if you get stressed or overwhelmed, you’ll likely transfer those emotions to the patient.
Gather Necessary Supplies
Before surgery, make sure the home is stocked with all necessary items for patient recovery. This may include some of the following items:
- Medications and prescriptions (as recommended by the health care provider)
- Medical supplies and accessibility equipment
- Personal care items such as toiletries, hygiene products, and comfortable clothing
Ways to Create a Healing Space for Post-Surgery Recovery
Designing a comfortable and nurturing home is essential for patient recovery. Here are some ambiance and design tips to help you create the ideal healing space.
Invest in ergonomic furniture that will provide both comfort and safety for a healing body. Ergonomic chairs and pillows offer excellent support. If the patient will endure an extended period of bed rest, opt for an adjustable bed or recliner that easily changes positions or provides elevation.
In terms of importance, psychological wellness is a close second to physical safety for surgery patients, says Low. “Sit or lie in the area [they] will be recovering in. Consider what would improve that view.” Ordia adds, “Incorporate natural light and views of nature into the space to enhance mood and well-being.”
One of the biggest pieces of advice is to increase the presence of nature throughout the healing process. If you can’t bring the patient to the outdoors, bring the outdoors to the patient. Studies have shown that green, natural environments can help boost vitality (physical and mental energy).
If possible, move the bed or ergonomic chair close to a window. A landmark 1984 study revealed that having a nice window view can positively influence a patient’s recovery from surgery. “Placing a bird feeder where the healing person can see it brings nature to them when they are stuck in their home to heal,” adds Dr. Low.
Additionally, the increased natural light promotes healing and is a necessary component for many indoor plants, which you should add to the home to mimic a more natural environment. Indoor plants can also help the patient reduce stress and improve focus.
Soothing Sounds, Music, and Art
Playing the right sounds can help create the calming atmosphere that is imperative for healing. Numerous studies have shown that music can have a positive effect on both mental and physical health—improving heart rate, motor skills, and brain stimulation and even boosting one’s immune system.
Listening to soft music before bed can also improve sleep quality, which is extra important for those in recovery. Consider playing guided meditations to encourage mindfulness and relaxation. Similar to sound, adding art can help keep the patient calm during this potentially stressful period. Studies show that viewing artwork can help reduce stress and lower blood pressure.
Privacy and Personal Space
Surgery patients often lose their sense of independence during the recovery period, as they may need help with basic daily tasks. “Provide the things that evoke favorite memories of happier, healthier times,” suggests Pentecost. “Any adjustments that might facilitate some measure of independent behavior, such as walking or dining, by the patient should help the patient heal as they perceive a return to normalcy.”
Having peaceful alone time is also important for rest and recovery, so it’s crucial to provide opportunities for privacy where possible. “Coordinate visitors so that the healing person has them to look forward to but does not become overwhelmed,” says Low.
If the patient’s bed is in a shared room or is in a common area, install privacy curtains or screens to give them a better sense of personal space.
Personalized Healing Sanctuary
Consider creating a designated space for the patient for meditation, prayer, or reflection. It should be a comfortable space adorned with items that provide comfort and personal significance to the patient. Sentimental items may provide a greater sense of purpose during recovery.
“Caregivers should consider the healing person’s normal likes and dislikes in setting up a supportive and healing environment. Hobbies and pastimes they enjoy should be made accessible if possible,” says Low. “Photos, favorite keepsakes, and access to music can help keep spirits high and speed the physical work of recovery.”
Decorating the healing space with tasteful, inspirational affirmations or quotes can help lift the patient’s spirits and provide motivation. As a temporary option, consider printing these quotes out and placing them in stylish photo frames around the recovery space.
Enhance the healing experience by incorporating all of the senses into the space. Studies show that multisensory design improves quality of life.
“Using different textures, materials, and colors can evoke a range of emotional responses and contribute to a space that feels more supportive,” Papadopoulou notes.
Keep the place at a comfortable temperature at all times. If you set a temperature and the home is not meeting it, you may need to have your windows replaced—cold or warm air could be escaping through cracked or improperly sealed windows. Provide plenty of soft textiles, including blankets and pillows, to keep the patient cozy.
Use diffusers or candles with healing aromatherapy scents to engage the sense of smell, but make sure the scent is one that’s preferred by the patient. Essential oils may aid surgery healing by reducing inflammation, improving sleep, relieving headaches, and more.
Try to bring more natural light into the home if possible. If not, use lamps with soft, warm lights, and try to minimize fluorescents. Of course, keep the patient’s wishes and needs in mind as you design the space—what is cozy to one person may feel overwhelming to another.
Dos and Don’ts When Recovering from Surgery
While a patient’s primary focus before surgery is likely getting through operation day, it’s imperative to anticipate the recovery that comes after. Here are some things the patient should do (and avoid) to regain their strength after surgery.
To properly heal from surgery, patients must keep up with the following tasks. Caregivers should help the patient carry out these tasks when the person healing is unable to do so themselves.
- Attend any follow-up appointments: Regular check-ins are essential to monitor the recovery process.
- Care for incision or surgery scars: Follow the doctor’s guidance and keep the wound clean to reduce the risk of infection and minimize scarring.
- Follow the health care provider’s instructions: Stick to the doctor’s plan and reach out with any questions.
- Keep the body well-nourished: The patient should be eating nutritious foods (as recommended by the doctor) and staying properly hydrated.
- Monitor pain: Keep track of patient pain levels and manage pain accordingly. Communicate any concerns to the health care provider.
- Make a plan for pets: If the patient has pets in the home, consider how they may affect the recovery process and if it might be best to have a friend or dog sitter take them out of the home at first. “Pets are tremendously healing for us, but consider whether the pet may be too large or unpredictable to protect the healing area,” says Low.
Even if the patient is feeling well, it’s wise to maintain caution and avoid the following.
- Misusing or forgetting to take medication: The medication schedule should be followed accurately to ensure proper pain management and healing and avoid any potentially dangerous side effects.
- Overdoing it: The body needs rest after surgery. The patient should pace themselves according to recovery and avoid returning to work or attending social gatherings too soon.
- Recovering alone: There should be a designated caregiver to monitor the patient and assist with tasks as needed.
- Skipping rehabilitation appointments: Post-surgery rehabilitation plays a crucial role in a timely recovery.
Organizations That Provide Assistance for Recovering Surgery Patients
Several organizations offer a variety of resources, support, and information for surgery patients. Each is tailored to different types of surgeries.
- American Cancer Society: The American Cancer Society (ACS) supports cancer patients and survivors, offering resources related to cancer surgeries, recovery, and treatment options.
- BreastCancer.org: This organization provides information and support specifically tailored to individuals undergoing breast cancer surgery and reconstruction.
- Mended Hearts: Mended Hearts is a nonprofit organization offering support to heart surgery patients and their families, providing education and emotional assistance.
- The Children’s Heart Foundation: Focused on pediatric cardiac surgery, this foundation supports research and provides resources for families of children with congenital heart defects.
Cesarean and Postpartum Surgeries
- International Cesarean Awareness Network: The International Cesarean Awareness Network (ICAN) provides information about C-sections and support for C-section recovery.
Dental and Oral Surgeries
- American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons: This organization provides information on oral and maxillofacial surgeries, including wisdom teeth removal, jaw surgery, and facial trauma procedures.
- American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery: This organization offers resources for patients recovering from eye surgeries, such as cataracts or refractive surgeries.
- American Gastroenterological Association (AGA): The American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) provides information on gastrointestinal surgeries and digestive health, including resources for those recovering from procedures such as colon surgery.
- The Oley Foundation: This organization supports individuals who have undergone gastrointestinal surgeries and rely on parenteral and enteral nutrition.
- American Association of Neurological Surgeons: This organization, abbreviated as AANS, provides resources for patients and families facing neurosurgery, including information on various neurological conditions and treatment options.
- Brain Aneurysm Foundation: This foundation offers support and education for individuals recovering from brain aneurysm surgery.
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: This organization’s website offers information on orthopedic surgeries, recovery, and rehabilitation, including patient education resources.
- Arthritis Foundation: The Arthritis Foundation provides support and resources for individuals recovering from joint replacement surgeries, such as hip or knee replacements.
- Transplant Recipients International Organization: The Transplant Recipients International Organization, or TRIO, offers support and advocacy for organ transplant recipients and their families.
Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeries
- American Society of Plastic Surgeons: The American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) provides information about plastic and reconstructive surgery procedures, including resources for patients considering or recovering from such surgeries.
It can be a long road to recovery after surgery. While our bodies rebuild strength in their own time, studies show that creating a healing space that promotes physical and emotional wellness can aid recovery. Pay close attention to design and environmental choices to promote physical and emotional wellness for the patient recovering from surgery.
Maud Low, Ph.D., RNC, CLNC, is a clinical assistant nursing professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Low has been publishing articles on nursing and nursing education since the 1990s and earned a Ph.D. in nursing from UMass Amherst in 2021. Through her academic years, Low developed a second specialty—mental health nursing—in which she has been clinically active at Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Her PhD work is focused on nurse-to-nurse relationships.
Athina Papadopoulou, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of architecture, health, and design at the New York Institute of Technology. She teaches in the Masters of Health and Design and the Bachelors of Architecture programs and codirects the ReMEDia research lab. Papadopoulou’s research focuses on programmable material environments that promote inclusion, support neurodiversity, and enhance health and well-being through sensory interaction and biobased material approaches.
Kendra Locklear Ordia earned a Master of Interior Design degree from the School of Architecture at The University of Texas at Austin, where she focused on biophilic interior design guidelines for health care environments. She is a registered interior designer in Texas, holds a National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ) certification, and is a LEED for Building Design and Construction (LEED BD+C) accredited professional. Her research explores nature integration in interior environments through theory, narrative, and designed solutions for increased well-being, equity, and delight.
Ray Pentecost, DrPH, is the director of the Center for Health Systems & Design at Texas A&M University and holder of the George J. Mann Chair of Healthcare Design. Pentecost is a fellow in the American Institute of Architects and the American College of Healthcare Architects and a former nursing home administrator. Recently, Pentecost received the prestigious 2022 Changemaker Award from the Center for Health Design, which “honors individuals or organizations that have demonstrated an exceptional ability to change the way healthcare facilities are designed and built, and whose work has a broad impact on the advancement of healthcare design.” Pentecost studied architecture at Rice University and public health at the UTHealth School of Public Health, both in Houston.