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Palliative care - what the final days are like

Dying is a process. Sometimes the process takes time. For a while, signs that death is near may come and go. Family and friends may need help understanding the signs that mean a person is close to death.

What You Might See

As a person gets closer to death, the person might:

  • Have less pain
  • Have trouble swallowing
  • Have blurry vision
  • Have trouble hearing
  • Eat or drink less
  • Lose control of urine and stool
  • Hear or see something and think it is something else, misunderstand
  • Talk to people who are not in the room
  • Talk about going to a trip or leaving
  • Talk less
  • Moan
  • Have cool hands, arms, feet, or legs
  • Have blue or gray nose, mouth, fingers, or toes
  • Sleep more
  • Have breathing that sounds wet, maybe with bubbling sounds
  • Cough more
  • Have breathing changes: breathing may stop for a bit, then several quick, deep breaths
  • Stop responding to touch or sounds, go into a coma

What You Can Do

  • If you don’t understand what you see, ask a hospice team member.
  • Let family and friends, even children, visit, a few at a time.
  • Help the patient get into a comfortable position.
  • Give medicine to treat symptoms.
  • If the patient is not drinking, wet their mouth with ice chips or a sponge.
  • If the patient is hot, put a cool wet cloth on his or her forehead.
  • Keep a light on. If the patient has blurry vision, darkness can be scary.
  • Play soft music the patient likes.
  • Touch the patient. Hold hands.
  • Talk calmly to the patient. Even if you get no response, he or she may still hear you.
  • Write down what the patient says. This may comfort you later.
  • Let the patient sleep.

When to Call the Doctor

Call the doctor if your loved one shows signs of pain or anxiety.

Update Date: 6/12/2012

Updated by: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.

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