End of life

Caring for a loved one

It can be difficult to see death approaching for someone you love or care about.

It is helpful to think and talk about the priorities for your loved one’s care. This may include being able to discuss and recognise with doctors and nurses that death is approaching and sharing together decisions about care that are individual to the person.

Talk to your nurse or doctor about how you think personal care should be given. Think about what you could or would like to do. Consider what support you need and how others can help you, such as doing the shopping or walking the dog for you, or sitting with your loved one when you need to leave them.

We think that hearing is the last sense to go before death, so you can give care and support to your loved one by:

  • spending time together and sharing memories and stories
  • talking about people you know
  • listening to their worries and concerns
  • playing music
  • listening to the radio or reading together

There are also practical steps you can take, such as:

  • moistening their mouth and lips with water, moisturiser or lip salve
  • recognising what keeps them comfortable, such as gently moving their arms and legs to reposition them if that seems to help
  • sitting quietly with your loved one and keeping them company can be very comforting. Don’t be afraid to take turns with your friends and family.

Don’t worry if the person you care for does not seem to respond very much. As the end of their life approaches, weakness and lack of consciousness increase. It is this, rather than a lack of appreciation for you, that may stop them responding.

Support from health care professionals

Members of the health care team can give advice and offer help with controlling symptoms such as pain, breathlessness or chesty secretions. They can help to provide practical care with equipment such as special beds and mattresses to maintain comfort. They can also answer any practical or medical questions that you might have.

Sarah, a palliative care nurse, gives her perspective:

I know that thinking and talking about the end of your life, or the life of someone dear to you, can be really difficult. Nurses, doctors, physiotherapists and the whole team are there to help you and your family to discuss and plan for possible future situations.

These are the things that I think about in such conversations:

  • What do you know, or want to know, about what might happen in the future?
  • What is most important to you now, or in the future?
  • Is there anything that you are worried or scared of?
  • What have you discussed with your family or friends?
  • What help do you want in discussions, decisions or preparing documents?
  • What support would be helpful for your family?
  • Is there anything that you want to do or achieve before becoming more ill?
  • How else can we help?

When people become more ill and especially if you can’t tell me yourself, then I think:

  • What do I know about your wishes and decisions?
  • Is there an advance statement to tell us what was important to you?
  • Is there an advance decision to refuse treatment to tell us what treatments you do not want?
  • Is there a lasting power of attorney to speak on your behalf?
  • What do your family or friends think your wishes and decisions might be?
  • If you want to stay at home, what do I need to organise for you?
  • If you are in hospital or in a hospice or care home, what do I need to tell the team there?
  • What support would be helpful for your family?
  • What else can we do to help?

Most importantly, I think: what do I know, or have to find out, about what matters to you?

“She required more and more care, help and support. This was given willingly; indeed it made us closer and was a privilege. But it was challenging, frightening, exhausting and isolating.

She became ever more frail and in the final two weeks bed-bound. She was comfortable in her own bed surrounded by me, her youngest sister and her cats. She would listen to her Kindle and complete crosswords.

She wanted minimal interference from anyone, her wishes were respected. The intermediate care team, particularly the physiotherapist, was a support for us more than my mum.”

- Penny, who cared for her mother

Next: What to do at the time of death >

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Last medically reviewed: March 2015. Due for review: March 2018

This information uses the best available medical evidence and was produced with the support of people living with lung conditions. Find out how we produce our information. If you’d like to see our references get in touch.