Death is still a bit of a taboo subject in our western society. It can be hidden away and we tend to block that part of our lives out. Since I’ve been working in a Nursing home, it has opened my eyes further to death and the dying process.
Many people think of death as a sudden thing and it can be – death by accident, sudden illness, heart attack, stroke or dying from old age overnight. But actually dying from old age is often a process that can happen over quite a long period of time, years even. If you think about the ageing process, it actually makes a lot of sense. It’s this type of death that we’ll be talking about in this post.
For me personally, getting over 40 makes you notice the ageing process more (woe is me). Joints are stiffer, skin starts to sag etc. It doesn’t mean I feel any less fabulous, far from it, and it doesn’t mean you should throw in the towel! I’m a firm believer in grabbing all of life’s possibilities and following your dreams, whatever your age. It’s never too late. I digress.
I’m writing this article not to frighten anyone but to inform people who are perhaps looking out for an elderly relative, or have been told the end is near for their loved one and don’t know what to expect. It can be frightening when you face the unknown. In a lot of older people, I’m talking 85 plus – and it’s different for everyone – you may notice some of these symptoms or lifestyle changes which could indicate a wind down of the system:
- they are having falls, more often than usual
- They start sleeping a lot more often, for long periods
- Their weight decreases
- Appetite decreases
- They may get confused (always check in case they have a urine infection which can cause confusion)
- Forgetfulness that is separate to a dementia diagnosis
- Withdrawal from activities they used to enjoy
- Talking less
When death is more imminent, in the last couple of weeks you may find they:
- Sleep most of the time
- Have difficulty getting out of bed
- Eat and drink very little and have little or no appetite
- They can hallucinate, maybe see loved ones passed
- Less bowel movements and less urine passed
- Body temperature can go up and down so they can feel hot or cold in the same day
- Their breathing changes, they can get mucous build up in the back of their throat or chest
In their final hours, the following can be common:
- Glazed over eyes
- They can no longer eat or drink
- Breathing can be erratic and congested
- Pulse and blood pressure can be hard to detect and erratic
- They no longer have bowel movements or pass urine
- The skin on their hands and feet can turn a bluish purple
- Drifting in and out of consciousness
What you can do to help the dying process
Just being there for them is a huge help. Keeping them comfortable is the best thing. As a nurse, it’s hugely satisfying to be able to keep someone comfortable in their final weeks of life and to make their transition as smooth as possible. If death is expected and your loved one has no plans to be resuscitated, then it is a very peaceful process. There are medications that can be given to relieve pain, reduce mucous secretions and to relax the body. It’s often harder on the relatives, as the patient is often unaware in their final days of what is going on, certainly in their last hours.
They may still be able to hear and feel, so holding their hand, stroking their face, playing music they like and keeping the lights low with subtle aromas is best. You could read to them, buy them flowers or a plant, massage their hands or feet. If they like animals or have a loyal pet, let them spend time together, this can often be facilitated, even in hospitals. Take turns with family members and friends, and don’t feel guilty if you aren’t there at the final breath. You’ve been there throughout their life and that is what’s most important.
Once they have passed, there’s a whole host of other questions that can crop up. Sun Life have produced a very useful practical checklist of what to do when someone dies, there’s even a free printable checklist. I’d urge you to look through it before the end happens.
I hope if you have a loved one who you think or is going through the dying process that this article has helped. I’m always around if you need to talk or have a question.
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