Dying is a natural part of life, but few of us are prepared to care for someone in his or her final days. Family members and friends play important roles during a loved one’s final months, weeks and days. This article explains some of the changes that naturally occur and shares tips on what you can do as a caregiver during this delicate time.
Our bodies are miraculous. Some of the changes that take place at the end of life are meant to make an individual comfortable during the dying process. Because these changes seem unnatural and counter-intuitive, caregivers often wonder if things are going as they should. Some signs that death is near include:
It is common for a person to withdraw from the normal activities and interests he or she once enjoyed. For example, if your loved one always read the newspaper in the morning, he or she may not be interested in community/outside news of any kind. As a caregiver, know this is normal. Do not force your loved one to do activities, even if he or she once enjoyed them.
2. Increased Sleep
A person may sleep more and speak less at the end of life. When this occurs, he or she is getting ready to let go from this life and preparing for the next journey.
If your loved one is unresponsive and hard to rouse, remember, he or she can probably still hear you. Be present and talk about positive topics; this can be comforting at this stage. Always tell the person who you are, “Hi, it’s Jane. I’m going to sit with you for awhile.” Use your normal tone of voice. Do not say anything in front of the person that you would not usually say to him or her.
3. Changes in Appetite
When someone is nearing death, he or she may not be interested in food, or may not even be able to eat or drink. It is normal for an individual to lose his or her ability to swallow, so it is difficult, and sometimes unnecessary, to take in nourishment. This is particularly difficult for caregivers, because eating is such a big part of our culture. We eat for nutrition, but we also eat when we socialize.
At end of life, the body is slowing down and no longer able to digest food properly. When your loved one does not eat or drink, this does not mean he or she is hungry or dying from lack of food. As a caregiver, do not force food or drink. At this time, eating and drinking can feel physically uncomfortable.
4. Confusion, Disorientation & Restlessness
People at the end of life may be confused about the time, where they are, and may have difficulty recognizing others around them. They may say they see things or people that we cannot see. Those at the end of life may also talk about travel and make comments like, “I am going to go on an airplane today,” or “I want to get home.” Acknowledge their experiences without arguing, even if it does not make sense to you. Listen carefully, your loved ones may be telling you they are preparing for death or saying goodbye.
During this time, it may be helpful to use light touch, soft music or inspirational readings. Don’t be afraid to tell a memorable story or what you learned from them. It may also be a time to say I am sorry or mention forgiveness. You may also want to tell your loved one to let go and provide reassurance that you will be alright.
As a caregiver, remember to care for yourself. If you do not take care of you, the stress of caregiving has the potential to cause burnout. As hard as it may be, accept offers of support. Know that it is OK to cry and express emotions. Try to treasure this time. Your presence with your loved one at the end of his or her life is a time you will always remember and never regret.
About Hospice of the Red River Valley
In 1981, Hospice of the Red River Valley was founded on the belief that everyone deserves access to high-quality end-of-life care. We fulfill our nonprofit mission by providing medical, emotional, personal and spiritual care, as well as grief support to our patients, their families and caregivers during a tender time in life. Our staff helps those we serve experience more meaningful moments through exceptional hospice care, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, wherever a patient calls home. The organization serves more than 40,000 square miles in North Dakota and Minnesota, including in and around Bismarck, Detroit Lakes, Devils Lake, Fargo, Fergus Falls, Grand Forks, Lisbon, Thief River Falls, Valley City and many more communities. Hospice of the Red River Valley offers round-the-clock availability via phone, prompt response times and same-day admissions, including evenings, weekends and holidays. Contact us anytime at 800-237-4629 or hrrv.org.