As humans, we eat to give our body nutrients and provide energy in order to be able to carry out daily functions. However, as we age, our hunger and thirst changes throughout life. Ultimately, at the end of life, our body is in the process of shutting down and does not need as much food and fluids as it did before. This can be a challenging concept to think about but is vital to understand in order to provide quality care as health practitioners.
Towards the end of life, it is common for a person to experience decreased thirst and hunger. This is a natural way that allows the body to prepare for death. Some individuals can have trouble eating or drinking that can lead to a decrease in their food and fluid intakes. In addition to loss of appetite, it is normal for the digestive process to have diminished function. When food and fluids are forced upon a person at the end of their life, it can cause uncomfortable symptoms including:
- Gastric reflux that can lead to aspiration
It is not uncommon for family members to become concerned when their loved one is not eating or drinking much at the end of life. Often, family members fear that their loves ones will suffer when they experience these hunger and thirst changes. However, when individuals eat very little or not at all at end of life, they can experience a euphoric effect. Likewise, as fluid intake decreases and an individual experiences dehydration, studies show that this increases the body’s production of opiates that can reduce pain, ultimately leading the euphoric effect mentioned above. This euphoric effect creates a calming feeling for the person.
In terms of artificial nutrition, it is important to understand that nutrition support will not increase an individual’s appetite, reverse their current condition, or even promote better quality of life. Often, it is common for a person to experience issues that can worsen their health status such as:
- Increased risk for infections
- Can increase a person’s risk of infection
Hospice Nutrition Advice. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.abramsoncenter.org/resources/hospice-nutrition-advice/
The Ohio State University. (April 9). The Ohio State University – Patient Education, from: https://patienteducation.osumc.edu/Documents/endoflife-nutrition-concerns.pdf
Hospice of Huntington Inc. Retrieved from http://www.hospiceofhuntington.org/get-help-now/tips-from-the-dietitian/end-of-life-nutrition