Food and drink plays an important role in our lives. We generally associate eating with some of our cherished memories, such as birthday parties or holiday get-togethers. Food is essential – not just for sustenance but for socialization. This is why the changes that occur to patients’ nutritional needs at the end-of-life can be surprising. However, knowing what to expect at the end-of-life and how to manage these changes are important in making sure your loved one’s hospice experience is as comfortable as possible. Read below to learn about nutrition at the end-of-life, and how to be prepared for the changes that will occur.
Changes in Diet & Nutrition at the End of Life
It’s important to understand that hunger and thirst naturally decrease at the end-of-life. The digestive process changes and is very different from what a healthy person experiences. This can be especially jarring for loved ones, and sometimes leads to negative feelings and stress. Although it may be distressing to see that your loved one is no longer eating, please understand that the doctors and nurses are experienced healthcare professionals and understand the needs of the patients. This page goes into more detail below, but for the most part, if a loved one is slowing down eating, there is no need to force the person to eat.
The ultimate goal of hospice programs is to make patients as comfortable as possible. This is done by both addressing their needs and understanding the end-of-life process.
If you have concerns, or simply have questions about end-of-life nutrition, we recommend the following:
- Let the patient dictate what they want to eat and drink: Ultimately the patient should dictate how often they want to eat and drink. Our bodies tell us what we need and when.
- Speak with the doctor, nurse, or medical professional: The medical professional will be able to offer special insight into the end-of-life process and explain to you what is normal and what is not.
Complications That May Occur at the End-of-Life
It is important that patients only eat if they have an appetite. Forcing a patient to eat or drink can lead to a number of complications, including:
- Constipation or Diarrhea
- Severe Indigestion
- Fluids/Food Inhaled into the Lungs (Aspiration)
End-of-Life Nutrition FAQ
- Is loss of appetite and thirst normal? Yes. This is absolutely normal for a person at the end-of-life. In fact, it is part of the process.
- Will my loved one starve to death or become dehydrated? This is one of the common questions regarding nutrition at the end-of-life. Families and caregivers frequently worry that their loved one is going to suffer if they do not eat or drink. But in reality, hospice patients at the end-of-life usually don’t feel hungry or thirsty, nor are they they likely die directly from lack of nutrients or water.
- Is there ever a time when we should try to make them eat or drink? Forcing the patient to eat or drink can cause a number of different complications as outlined above. It is ultimately best to speak with a healthcare professional, as every patient and situation is different.
- If the patient is hungry, what foods should they eat? This largely depends on what the patient wants to eat. If the patient is in the mood for a certain food, there generally isn’t a reason why you should withhold it from them. However, if you are unsure about hospice nutrition you should speak with a healthcare professional.
- Should artificial nutrition and hydration be used? Artificial nutrition and hydration, such as a feeding tube, can actually lead to a number of the complications outlined above, as well as issues such as infections and bleeding. Although every situation is different, it’s not usually recommended unless suggested by a medical professional.
- What about religious concerns regarding hospice nutrition? Depending on the religion, there may be some concerns, specifically regarding withholding food and drink. The Abramson Center works with patients and their families to respect these wishes.
If you have questions regarding hospice nutrition or about avoiding complications such as what is listed above, please speak with a senior care manager (free call, available 24/7).