Caring for a Dying Loved One
Whether you bring a dying loved one home or keep vigil at the hospital, you can take measures to provide comfort and relief at the end of life.
Caring for a dying loved one isn't easy. Even when you know the end of life is approaching, you might not feel prepared. Understanding what to expect — and what you can do to increase your loved one's comfort — can help.
Choosing where to die
Your loved one might have choices for end-of-life care. Options might include:
Home care. Most people prefer to die at home or in the home of a family member. You can assume the role of caregiver or hire home care services for support. Hospice care — services that help ensure the highest quality of life for whatever time remains — can be provided at home as well.
Inpatient care. Some people might prefer round-the-clock care at a nursing home, hospital or dedicated inpatient hospice facility. Hospice and palliative care — a holistic treatment approach intended to ease symptoms, relieve pain, and address spiritual and psychological concerns — can be provided in any of these environments.
Seek clarity about the type of care your loved one wants at the end of life. Many people approaching death choose to stop treatments that cause significant side effects, preferring treatments that improve comfort. Your loved one also may prefer to die free from the burdens of life-support machines such as ventilators and dialysis machines.
You may worry that stopping these types of treatments will hasten your loved one's death, but studies show that focusing on symptom control does not generally shorten life, and may even extend it, while helping your loved one experience a peaceful death.
When you discuss the options with your loved one, consider his or her preferences as well as special physical, emotional and psychosocial needs. Evaluate how much support can be provided by family members and friends. For help determining the best option, talk with your loved one's health care team or a social worker. You might ask for a referral to palliative or hospice care specialists — health care providers trained in specific care for people nearing the end of life.
Spirituality at the end of life
As your loved one approaches the end of life, he or she might talk about spirituality or the meaning of life. Don't force the subject — but if it comes up, encourage your loved one to explore and address his or her feelings. You might ask your loved one open-ended questions about his or her beliefs and experiences or most meaningful moments. You might want to invite a spiritual leader to visit your loved one as well.
You can help your loved one communicate his or her final wishes for family and friends. Encourage your loved one to share his or her feelings, including thanks or forgiveness, and give others a chance to say goodbye. This might stimulate discussion about important, unsaid thoughts, which can be meaningful for everyone.
Your loved one might also find it comforting to leave a legacy — such as creating a recording about his or her life or writing letters to loved ones, especially concerning important future events.
Recognizing when death is near
It's difficult to predict exactly when someone will die. As death approaches, however, your loved one might show signs indicating that the end of life is near. Look for:
Restlessness and agitation. Your loved one might frequently change positions.
Withdrawal. Your loved one might lose interest in friends or favorite activities.
Drowsiness. Your loved one might be drowsy, sleep more or have intermittent sleep.
Loss of appetite. Your loved one might eat and drink less than usual.
Pauses or other changes in breathing. This might happen when your loved one is asleep or awake.
Reports of seeing someone who has already died. Your loved one also may tell you that he or she is dying.
Although you can't change what's happening to your loved one, you can help him or her feel as comfortable as possible — ideally with the support of palliative or hospice care specialists.
If your loved one:
Is no longer eating or drinking
Keep your loved one's mouth moist with ice chips or a sponge. Apply lip balm or petroleum jelly to his or her lips.
Has labored breathing
Turn your loved one's head to the side. Place pillows beneath your loved one's head. Oxygen or a cool-mist humidifier also might help. Ask the medical team if medication might help.
Use incontinence pads or a catheter to keep your loved one dry and clean.
Talk to your loved one in a soothing voice. Hold his or her hand.
Is agitated or confused
Be calm and reassuring. Remind your loved one where he or she is and who is there. Ask the medical team for help if significant agitation occurs.
Seems to be in pain
Ask the medical team to adjust your loved one's medication or treatment plan.
Has cold hands and feet
Make sure there isn't a draft in the room. Turn up the heat and provide warm blankets.
Your loved one might also experience a brief, final surge of energy. Though it can be confusing to see your loved one with renewed vitality, remember that this is often a normal part of dying. If it happens, take advantage of the opportunity to enjoy your loved one and say your final goodbyes.
For many families, keeping vigil near a dying loved one's bed is a way to show support and love. If you decide to keep vigil, continue talking to your loved one. If you think your loved one would want to share this time with others, invite family members or close friends to show their support as well. Express your love, but also let your loved one know that it's all right to let go.