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Illness can change your loved one’s appetite and ability to eat, but as a caregiver, you can help
Eating is a daily pleasure, and food is an essential part of our lives. It sustains and comforts us; we share it and celebrate with it. We serve food to communicate caring and love. Food is a major part of life – for daily sustenance and as way to mark milestones and enjoy fellowship.
At Thanksgiving you eat turkey with all the fixings. At your birthday celebration there’s cake. At your colleague’s retirement party there are appetizers. You get together with your friends at a local restaurant for dinner and drinks. You celebrate your 40th wedding anniversary on a cruise with an all-you-can-eat buffet. Each milestone is completed by the additional of food and drink.
You’re even supposed to “feed a cold.”
But what happens when your loved one reaches another milestone – nearing the end of life? And he or she is seriously ill and is having difficulty eating and drinking? How can you help them – both physically and emotionally? How do you handle end-of-life nutrition when you’re conditioned to always have food around?
When you become ill – whether it’s with the flu or an injured ankle– your appetite decreases. When you become seriously ill and nearing the end of life, your body’s need for food and end-of-life nutrition is also altered. This is due to decreased activity and metabolic changes.
Near the end of life, your loved one often has symptoms that will reduce their appetite, such as nausea and pain. Plus, their disease can affect their taste buds, making food taste bland, salty or sour. Some medications may also alter flavors and appetite.
In these situations, families often struggle to get their loved one to eat. But that can lead to friction, which can cause more stress and interfere with open communication within the family.
Anything that he or she wishes.
Hospice experts advise families to avoid such a “food struggle” by allowing their loved one to eat what they want when they want. Your loved one can even benefit from withholding nutrition at the end of life or not eating when they don’t want to. For instance, eating can actually lead to added discomfort from a weakened digestive system.
Here’s a list of what can cause a decreased appetite in hospice patients:
Indeed, when faced with a terminal illness, people begin adjusting their priorities — and may prefer to spend energy on activities and relationships rather than on food. Moreover, people nearing the end of life may no longer be able to benefit from the sustaining properties of food.
So let your loved one make these choices; their body knows what it needs.
Your loved one’s wishes, dignity, and comfort should be the guide.
At the same time, you can help your loved one want to eat, and enhance access to the comforts of food and drink. If the doctor recommends a specific diet, follow it as much as possible. And feel free to discuss these issues with the hospice team.
Here are some simple tips to help encourage (but not compel) your loved one to eat:
In addition, to increase the patient’s calorie intake:
Strive for a balanced diet if possible, including protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Protein, which is the building block of tissue, reduces the chance of getting pressure sores. If the patient is consuming little or no protein, here are ways to add it to their diet:
Serve soft, non-irritating foods for meals and snacks:
People who are terminally ill generally don’t feel hungry and eat little. They may feel thirsty, which can be addressed with small amounts of liquids, ice chips, hard candies, or frequent swabbing of the mouth.
In fact, lack of eating and drinking can increase comfort near the end of life. The reasons:
Each person’s situation is different, and the hospice team can help you make the best decisions for your loved one’s comfort and dignity.
Remember, never force end-of-life nutrition or insist that your loved one eat. This can develop into a struggle where the family feels rejected and your loved one feels ungrateful or guilty. Your loved one may even give in, to some degree, but may feel worse both physically and emotionally, and the family relationship could suffer.
Caregivers should not worry about withholding nutrition at the end of life. However, you can make it easier and more inviting for your loved one to eat and drink – and give them some added comfort — by following the tips provided above.