Having to place a loved one in hospice care can be a very difficult decision, especially when you are unfamiliar with the specific providers who may be taking care of them. It is a time of concern, and most people have questions about what the future holds for their friend or relative. Hospice care provides support for patients and families during this difficult phase of life so that they do not feel helpless or alone.
Understanding Hospice Care
Hospice provides specialized care for people who are suffering from a life-limiting illness and are unable to take care of themselves. With an interdisciplinary team composed of physicians, nurses, health aides, and spiritual aids, hospice addresses not only the patient’s physical health, but also enhances their mental, emotional, social, and spiritual health. Hospice care does not stop at the patient, it supports family and caregivers by helping them cope with the intense emotions that arise while watching a loved one experience pain and suffering.
Hospice cares for patients with any form of life limiting disease, regardless of setting. Harbor Light Hospice focuses on improving the overall quality of life for patients for as long as possible, regardless of setting.
What to Do When Your Dying Loved One Stops Eating or Drinking
Though outside of hospice care it may be unusual for patients to decline food or drinks, it is not uncommon for hospice patients to cease eating or drinking as they approach death. While it is unsettling for you to see your loved one refuse to eat or drink, rest assured that this can be part of the natural dying process.There are many reasons patients stop eating or drinking including:
- Medications that upset the stomach, alter their appetite, or make food taste odd.
- Lack of hunger due to constipation or other medical issues.
- Difficulty chewing food from dental problems.
- Loss of appetite as they are approaching death.
Regardless of the reason, hospice care professionals work to determine the cause by asking the patient questions when possible, and evaluating medications as well as eating capabilities. If your loved one has stopped eating or drinking while in hospice for dementia or other conditions, you may not even notice. There may be no visible signs other than weight loss and discomfort. Since the body is no longer in survival mode, it’s natural reaction while shutting down is to deprive itself of nourishment and water.
If you have a loved one who is under the care of hospice and they are refusing to eat, forcing it on them may actually do more harm than good. In some cases, they stop eating because they feel discomfort when doing so. If you force eating upon them, their quality of life may suffer due to the additional stress of an unwanted activity. It is important for caregivers to always discuss concerns regarding nutrition with the patient’s attending physician. For more information, review our informational page on Artificial Nutrition and Hydration.
Hydration and End-of-life
Depending on their progression in the dying process, drinking should not always be forced onto someone who is receiving hospice care. Dehydration does not cause the patient any discomfort as long as they are being given IV fluids as well as enough liquid in the mouth to prevent it from becoming too dry. Being dehydrated reduces gastric juice secretions, which reduces or eliminates nausea and vomiting, causing many patients to feel more comfortable. In the past, many patients have reported having an increased sense of wellbeing after they stop eating and drinking on their own.
When nourishment is administered to patients via intubation, it can make them feel nauseous, cause them to vomit, or cause them to have diarrhea or gastric distention, which is bloating of the stomach caused by air being pumped into it. Eating and drinking during the final stages of life can cause choking or inhalation of food or fluid into the lungs (aspiration). Intravenous therapy (IV), nasogastric tubes or peg tubes can be used to nourish the body and promote comfort.
Nasogastric tubes are inserted through the nose, down the throat, and into the stomach. It can be used to give the person food and/or medicine, but is only used for a short period of time. For long-term use, peg tubes are inserted through an incision in the abdomen so that the nutrients are introduced directly into the stomach. However, both the nasogastric tube and the peg tube have side effects, as they are capable of leading to fluid overload, ulcers, sore throat, vomiting, infection, and diarrhea. Making a decision to utilize this type of medical technology should be discussed with the patient (if possible) and their physician.
Harbor Light Hospice is Ready to Support You!
Hospice care focuses on providing holistic care so that a patient struggling with a life-limiting illness may pass in peace and with dignity. Has your loved one’s physician recommended hospice care for their final days? Call us directly or contact us online for more information on our compassionate hospice care services, designed to support both patients families in this uncertain time.