Why do we focus on eating, even when our loved ones are at the end-of-life?
The physical aspect of eating is a vital part of our social nature and structure. Whenever friends and families gather to acknowledge birthdays, anniversaries, and special accomplishments, food and drink are often at the center of the celebration. Sharing nourishment with our loved ones is often how we show our gratitude, express our care for each other and praise our achievements. In contrast to the social benefits of breaking bread together, the biological need to eat is solely to promote healthy body function and provide energy for the body’s vital organs and activities.
Eating & Drinking Changes At The End-Of-Life, Here’s How.
As a physical body ages and is no longer healthy, physical nutritional requirements begin to change. When an individual has a terminal illness, the body slowly begins to shut down; thus, nutritional and caloric needs decrease over time. There are also normal changes in taste and smell as we age that accompany these declining needs. This constellation of issues often promotes a lack of appetite, clinically known as “anorexia”. This use of the word anorexia is quite distinct from the term anorexia nervosa, a separate medical and mental illness.
This gradual, or sometimes even sudden, loss of appetite is often very distressing for the family of the individual dealing with the terminal illness. Families often worry that their loved one will starve to death or suffer from dehydration. This loss of appetite is also a distressing tangible symbol of physical decline. In these situations, clinicians experienced in end-of-life care are crucial to help explain that forced consumption of nutrition, either via natural or artificial means, can be more harmful than helpful.
Forced Nutrition At The End-Of-Life Can Be Harmful
Forced nutrition may cause complications. In turn, terminally ill loved ones are at risk. Bloating, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are common consequences that are quite distressing. In more severe scenarios, the declining loved one may aspirate, a process where food or fluids are inhaled into the lung. This can cause aspiration pneumonia which could ultimately lead to death. Excess fluid intake alone can lead to a state of generalized fluid overload, which can manifest itself with fluid accumulation in the lungs, extremities and/or abdominal cavity.
The best approach is to allow your loved one to consume as much food and drink as they desire at the intervals they request. Individuals should choose their food and drink. The exception is when their medical provider has suggested a specific diet to follow. Families are best served by frequently offering small meals and decreased volume of drinks. The key here is prioritizing taste over the intake amount. Hospice providers, including the patient’s nurse case manager and social worker, can be of great aide. They help the family work through their emotions and feelings regarding declining appetite and intake.
If your loved one is experiencing a loss of appetite due to their medical condition, please contact us. Their medical provider can also offer additional guidance and support. Hospice of Southern Illinois has been your community, not-for-profit hospice for 40 years. Thank you for trusting our care.
Call Hospice of Southern Illinois to learn more about end-of-life care and hospice services, 800-233-1708. Request a chat.