Watching a loved one deal with a terminal illness is never easy, and when they enter the final stage of their life, it is only natural to want to help them be as comfortable as possible. Understanding the stages of dying and what the body is experiencing can help families know the best way to help their loved one.
3 Stages Of Dying
There are three main stages of dying: the early stage, the middle stage and the final stage. The early stage is typically marked by a decrease in eating and drinking that can last for days or even weeks. Patients may feel full quickly, become less interested in food, and occasionally choke on fluids. This is part of the natural process of the body shutting down and does not cause the patient pain or suffering.
This is followed by the middle stage of dying, which is marked by a drop in responsiveness to their surroundings and changes in physical appearance that could last for hours or days. During this stage, patients’ hands and feet could darken in color and might feel cold to the touch as their circulation slows down to reserve blood for their major internal organs. They may eventually become unable to speak or move. In most cases, this happens during the last few days of life.
During the final stage, a patient may experience disorientation and restlessness that increase in the last days. Their urine output may decrease, and their bowel movements might stop entirely. Their breathing will become more irregular and may be shallow with long pauses that grow in duration. There may also be a rattling sound in their throat as their lungs lose the ability to clear fluids.
Assisting Someone In The Stages Of Dying
While you may feel powerless over the process of dying itself, there are several ways that you can help your loved one to feel more comfortable as their body undergoes this natural and inevitable transition.
Help Them Stay Hydrated
First, you can help them stay hydrated even as their interest in food wanes. Offer them sips of fluid or chips of ice and bits of food, but do not insist if they refuse. You can also keep their mouth moist using swabs.
Assist Them In Eating
When a patient does want to eat, be sure to assist them with the process and respect their wishes when they say they have had enough. Offer small bites of foods they like and go slowly.
Talk With Them Softly
Even if your loved one is unresponsive, it is important to assume that they can hear everything going on around them. Talk to them softly and say their name. You may touch them gently, but only if they normally like being touched. Be sure to talk reassuringly and remain calm.
Keep Them Physically Comfortable
Keeping a patient physically comfortable at this stage is essential. As their circulation changes, they may require extra blankets or sheets or want them removed, so do your best to make sure they are not too hot or too cold. However, it is important to keep in mind that electric blankets and heating pads are a bad idea as the patient is unable to judge when they are too hot.
As the patient’s bowel functions diminish, offer them underbody pads or diapers as needed. It is important to check their pads or diapers frequently and change them when needed. They may also need or even request a Foley catheter.
If the patient is restless or agitated, medication can help. You can also help them find a more comfortable position by elevating the head of their bed or using pillows to prop their head up. Some patients may prefer to be turned onto their side. However, oxygen does not typically help during the final stages.
Help Them With Mental Stimulation
When you are talking to your loved one, you can help with mental stimulation by discussing topics you know they enjoy and reminding them of pleasant memories. Do not ask questions that require answers as this can lead to frustration. You might also consider praying together.
Talk To Hospice Care About Stages Of Dying
Hospice can often help patients far earlier in the process than many families realize. Not only can these services help to meet a patient’s physical, spiritual and emotional needs, but they can also supply any medical equipment that is needed. Moreover, the guidance and support that they can provide to caregivers can be extremely valuable.
If you have a loved one who is in the final stages of a terminal illness, get in touch with the hospice care experts at Harbor Light Hospice to find out how their extra layer of support can make your loved one more comfortable during this stage.