Care in the Final Hours
Key Points for This Section
- Knowing what to expect in the final days or hours may be comforting to the family.
- Patients often lose the desire to eat or drink in the final days or hours.
- Patients near death may not respond to others.
- A number of physical changes are common when the patient is near death.
- Patients and their families may have cultural or religious beliefs and customs that are important at the time of death.
Most people are not familiar with the signs that death is near. Knowing what to expect can prepare them for the death of their loved one and make this time less stressful and confusing. Health care providers can give family members information about the changes they may see in their loved one in the final hours and how they may help their loved one through it.
In the final days to hours of life, patients often lose the desire to eat or drink, and may refuse food and fluids that are offered to them. The family may give ice chips or swab the mouth and lips to keep them moist. Forcing food and fluids can make the patient uncomfortable or cause choking. Family members may find other ways to show their love for the patient, such as massage.
Patients may withdraw and spend more time sleeping. They may answer questions slowly or not at all, seem confused, and show little interest in their surroundings. Most patients are still able to hear after they are no longer able to speak. It may give some comfort if family members continue to touch and talk to the patient, even if the patient does not respond.
Some of the following physical changes may occur in the patient at the end of life:
- The patient may feel tired or weak.
- The patient may pass less urine and it may be dark in color.
- The patient’s hands and feet may become blotchy, cold, or blue. Caregivers can use blankets to keep the patient warm. Electric blankets or heating pads should not be used.
- The heart rate may go up or down and become irregular.
- Blood pressure usually goes down.
- Breathing may become irregular, with very shallow breathing, short periods of not breathing, or deep, rapid breathing.
After the patient dies, family members and caregivers may wish to stay with the patient a while. There may be certain customs or rituals that are important to the patient and family at this time. These might include rituals for coping with death, handling the patient's body, making final arrangements for the body, and honoring the death. The patient and family members should let the health care team know about any customs or rituals they want performed after the patient's death.