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By June Duncan, Author – The Complete Guide to Caregiving: A Daily Companion for New Senior Caregivers.
Reaching the final phase of life is stressful for both your loved one and for you as the caregiver. Even though it is natural and inevitable, nothing can change the fact that it’s also highly emotional. With some thoughtful preparations, you can provide comfort and peace to ease the process as much as possible.
The Physical Process
While symptoms vary with different illnesses and treatments, there is a general process that occurs as the human body enters its last days. The Hospice Foundation of America indicates that during the final days and hours of life, activity levels usually decrease. Your loved one might talk less and lose interest in eating, and as circulation changes, hands and feet may feel cold. When the final hours begin, breathing may seem erratic, alternating between periods of rapid breathing and periods of no breathing. There may be coughing, which can often be alleviated with medications. Skin may appear purplish, blotchy, and grayed around the feet, hands, and knees.
It’s important to understand that your loved one may at times be aware but unresponsive, even if in a coma. Hearing is one of the last senses to fade. Your loved one may still hear what is being said and may still be able to feel physical pain. Family members, caregivers, and medical personnel should always act as if your loved one is fully aware of what is happening.
Quality of Life
During the last days, managing quality of life while respecting your loved one’s wishes should be your top priority. The National Institute on Aging explains that what this looks like will vary according to individual circumstances. While some people prefer opportunities to share final thoughts with family and friends, others hope to pass quickly and quietly. There are no wrong answers, and the goal should be to honor those wishes and ensure there is as little suffering as possible.
When the end is close, your loved one may shift toward a readiness for death. According to some professionals, this is not the same as depression but is an acceptance of what is happening. You as the caregiver may experience a similar sense of letting go. You shouldn’t feel guilty; there can be relief in this acceptance.
There are several ways to comfort your loved one and relieve suffering. Physical pain can be reduced through medications; during the end of life, experts recommend offering pain medications without worrying about consequences such as drug dependence or abuse. Many other physical symptoms can be relieved with medications as well, such as digestive and breathing issues.
Emotionally, there are supportive actions you can take. Some experts suggest that providing a soothing and comforting space is important to your loved one’s well-being. You might keep family photos nearby, allowing your loved one to relive memories or enjoy reflecting on those who can’t be present. Sometimes seeing things piling up can create feelings of helplessness and frustration, so keep the area uncluttered and clean.
Tend Your Needs
Now is not the time to neglect your own needs. Your loved one needs you to be strong and healthy, and when this phase is over, you will continue to have obligations and responsibilities to tend to. As some experts suggest, this is a good time to rely on friends and family members. When people reach out to support you, accept their offers. You may be surprised what a relief it is to have a church member drop off a casserole or a neighbor wash your car. It can also be a piece of the healing process for them, too, so you shouldn’t feel guilty accepting help from those who care.
Saying goodbye to someone you love is difficult and emotional. Being aware of the physical changes that occur and finding ways to manage quality of life will help through the final days. Offer comfort to your loved one and ensure your own needs are met. With these considerations, you can ease the process as much as possible.