More than 40 million relatives in the U.S. provide unpaid care to chronically ill moms, dads, spouses, children and others, according to statistics from the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP.

Caregiving is a supremely selfless, medically complex and challenging task, which you, as a physician well understand; yet there are ways to make the process easier for the family members who will undertake it.

This piece will cover essential strategies for preparing your hospitalized patient's family member to become a confident and effective caregiver. The result: less stress on relative and patient, and a smoother and safer medical process at home, all through the invaluable info and support you and your coordinating staff can provide.

Welcome the caregiver onto your team

To earn a caregiver's trust, it's important for your entire care team to build rapport and provide emotional support to this family member from the time of your patient's admission.

A study from Baylor Scott & White Health found that an open visitation policy for close relatives, with no limits on how early someone can arrive or how long he/she can stay, makes patients feel more comfortable and less afraid in the hospital. This would naturally make the caregiver feel equally comfortable getting to know nurses, residents and specialists and feel appreciated.

Also, encourage the family member to stay over in a sick relative's room when that's medically feasible and desired by the patient; nurses can establish a nurturing bond with the caregiver by providing comfort items like blankets, pillows and breakfast the next morning.

Teach treatments before discharge

Many caregivers worry tremendously about the fact that they've never given a shot, changed adult diapers, or properly moved a patient in a bed, and fear hurting their relatives once they need to perform these tasks at home.

Unfortunately, many hospitals don't coach family caregivers sufficiently on how to execute basic medical care needs. Block in adequate time for your nurses and PCAs to provide hands-on teaching regarding medication and personal care procedures, so your caregiver will feel prepared to take on these tasks at home.

Talk through the caregiver's concerns

Let this person know that no question is wrong to ask, and provide all the detail you can when it comes to explaining the patient's current condition, follow-up care and symptoms the caregiver will need to look out for in case of emergency.

Connect with your patient's PCP for ongoing caregiver support

A study by University Health Network found that caregivers of ICU survivors who were required to be treated with mechanical ventilation for at least a week were at higher risk of depression up to one year after their loved one's discharge.

Caregivers of the seriously ill have most likely witnessed painful and traumatic things in the hospital, and need compassion as well as constructive psychological help. Keep an open line of communication with your patient's PCP to inform him/her of any emotional issues your patient's caregiver may bring up to you during follow-up visits, and work with this doctor to offer counseling for the caregiver if the need arises.

Give the gift of honesty

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh report that caregivers of seriously compromised stroke patients most appreciated a frank assessment of how well their loved ones were doing medically after being released from the hospital — even if that meant being told the patient may not survive long-term.

Never omit facts from the caregiver in terms of your patient's prognosis; however, always be kind and empathetic to the caregiver, and let him/her know how much you admire their abiding concern and dedication to their loved one.