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Caring for a Dying Loved One: Understanding the Dying Process

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In generations past, caring for dying loved ones at home was a natural family event. Due to modern technology, as well as nursing homes and hospitals, many people in today’s society have been insulated from watching their loved ones go through the dying process. This means most people are not aware of the signs and symptoms of the dying process.

How to care for a dying loved one

Given the choice, most people would choose to die a natural death at home surrounded by friends and family versus dying in a facility and being cared for by professionals. Over the past two decades there has been a rise in the number of families who are choosing to care for their dying loved ones at home. This resurgence and return to the ‘old ways’ means it is crucial for home caregivers to learn the signs and symptoms of the dying process. By educating yourself, you will be able to understand what is occurring with your loved one – and you’ll be able to act and respond accordingly.

Signs and symptoms of the dying process

The signs and symptoms of the dying process that are listed are general ways the body prepares itself for death. Your loved one may experience a few, or all, of these symptoms. Every person is unique, as is their dying process. Dying can occur within a few hours – or it may take up to a week or more

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Change in body temperature and skin appearance

You may notice that your loved one’s hands and feet are cool to the touch. Discoloration in the extremities may also occur. This is normal and it’s a sign that blood circulation is decreasing. You should make sure the person you are caring for is kept warm with blankets.

Increased slumber

A dying person will sleep much of the time and may be difficult to wake. These changes in the sleep cycle are due to the person’s metabolism changing. It should be noted that just because someone is sleeping or resting doesn’t mean their hearing is impaired. You should never speak about the dying person’s condition in a negative way or make remarks which would be hurtful. Also, use the times when the person is alert to talk with him.

Confusion and restlessness

It is common for dying people to become confused. Always tell your loved one who you are and try not to become upset if he doesn’t remember you. People who are close to death may ask about people or events from their past – and they may be confused about time. Offer comfort to your loved one and answer their questions in a way that keeps them from becoming agitated.

If your dying loved one starts to talk to someone who is not there or who has already died, you should know that it is not a sign of hallucination. Your loved one is preparing for the transition of death. You should not try to talk him out of what is being seen or said. What your loved one is seeing and saying is real to him and it should be affirmed.

Many dying people will appear restless. You may become very frightened and alarmed if your dying loved one starts pulling at his clothes, linens or making motions with his hands. You should not interfere with these movements. They are natural and are due to a decrease in oxygen circulating in the brain. If you want to try and soothe your loved one you can caress his head and talk to him in a soft voice. Talk to him about a favorite place or memory. You can also play soothing music in the background.

Changes in urine and bowel movements

Someone who is dying will still pass urine and have bowel movements – even if he isn’t eating or drinking. As urine amounts decrease, the urine may be very dark and concentrated. This is a sign that circulation in the kidneys is decreasing. You may want to talk with someone to see if your loved one needs a catheter. Constipation may be a problem, so talk to a doctor, nurse or hospice worker about what you can do to help relieve the problem.

Changes in breathing patterns

You may notice a change in your dying loved one’s breathing patterns. There may be lengthy pauses between breaths that can last up to a minute. You may also find there are times when your loved one has very shallow breathing or he may seem to be panting. To help ease breathing discomfort, elevate the head or turn the person on his side. Talk with a hospice worker or doctor to see if oxygen would help.

If you notice gurgling sounds, don’t be alarmed. Gurgling is generally a result of a person’s inability to cough. You may want to turn your loved one on his side. This will allow any secretions that are building up inside the mouth and throat to drain naturally.

Give permission to the dying

Many dying people will try to hold on to life because they are unsure if their loved ones will be to deal with their death. If you feel your loved one is hanging onto life and prolonging their physical and mental anguish, you may want to give assurance that everything is all right with you and the family. Many times this will give a dying person the permission and peace they need to let go. Remember, it is perfectly normal to cry and shed tears through a loved one’s dying process and eventual passing.

Recommended reading on the dying process

For more information and advice on caring for a dying loved one, take a look at the following books:

Dying Well
The End-of-Life Handbook: A Compassionate Guide
Coming Home: A Practical and Compassionate Guide to Caring for a Dying Loved One

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