Food is often at the center of all we do—holiday feasts, birthday cakes, dinner with friends. Aside from being a basic human need, food entertains and even comforts. Most importantly, food gives us energy and plays a role in keeping us healthy. However, when a body is preparing to die, it is natural that eating should stop. This situation is a difficult concept for many caregivers and loved ones to understand.
“A lot of it has to do with food being related to love. If someone is sick you bring them food,” said Barbara Hedges, Care Manager at the HopeWest Hospice Care Center. “Nutrition at the end of life is a question families have 100% of the time and our care teams must educate families or the patient’s caregiver to help them understand that loss of appetite is a normal part of the dying process.”
Families often worry that their loved one is “starving” or experiencing the discomfort we feel when we are hungry. “We have to remind families that their loved one is dying from the disease not starvation,” said Hedges, “The best way to show this is by asking the patient if they are hungry or thirsty—most will say no.”
At the end of life, coaxing hospice patients to eat can actually do more harm than good. Studies show that eating and drinking at the end of life does not improve quality or longevity of life. At this point the body has less nutritional requirements and the energy required to chew, digest and eliminate food can be more than the body can handle.
Although families feel they are helping by encouraging food many patients will experience discomfort from eating. Patients sometimes eat, not because they want to, but rather to ease the concern of the family members or caregiver. Food the body cannot process can result in cramping, nausea, bloating or aspiration pneumonia.
“We know it’s a gradual process and that intake of both liquids and solids will slow down,” said Hedges, “That’s usually when families offer patients their favorite foods.”
The HopeWest care teams advise families to listen to their loved one and give them anything that sounds good to the patient. Perhaps it’s a smoothie, ice cream or sherbet. The patient may only want bites or sips or perhaps they don’t want food or drink at all and that’s ok. During this time, families and caregivers can help most by keeping the mouth and lips of the patient moist.
This is only the beginning of this important dialog; our hospice professionals are happy to provide additional information and support. As a family member or caregiver, we hope to equip you with enough knowledge and understanding so you can help your loved one receive the appropriate nutrition and hydration at the end of life. For more information or resources, please call 970-255-7211.