When family members are visiting or caring for a loved one who is close to death, they often want to know when death will occur so they can prepare themselves, gather other family near and be with their loved one at the time of death. Physicians and nurses may be able to give family some idea of how much time dying patients have left, but these usually are best guesses; no two patients or situations are alike or completely predictable. Depending on the dying person's illness and overall condition, however, some signs and symptoms can help family know that the end may be near.
In a person's last weeks or days, body systems may begin to shut down and the dying person's wounds may not heal well. He or she will be more sleepy and lethargic than usual and may begin to show pauses in breathing when sleeping. The dying person might have edema, or water retention, in the extremities. Dying people often begin to take in less food and drink and some withdraw, while others try to settle "unfinished business."
Hospice organizations often help family caregivers prepare for the signs of the final, or active, phase of dying. At this point, the dying person may be difficult to arouse from sleep, pause longer in breathing or breathe abnormally. His or her throat becomes very dry, which makes it hard to swallow, so food and drink shouldn't be pushed upon the dying person. Many dying patients become severely agitated, hallucinate and don't act like their normal selves. Some will have trouble controlling their bladders or bowels even though they had normal function up to this point. Often, a person's blood pressure drops dramatically from his or her normal readings just before death [source: Hospice Patients Alliance]. If there is fluid in the lungs, it may cause the so-called death rattle.
Knowing these signs may help family and caregivers better prepare for the death of a loved one and understand what's happening. Many professionals also remind family that hearing usually is one of the last senses to go, so it's important to always assume your loved one can hear you [sources: ACS, CancerHelp]. Keep speaking to and comforting the dying person right up to the end.
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