We’re in the midst of holiday season, and for many of us that means family events, gatherings with our friends and other celebrations. And of course it means lots of eating. An abundance of goodies that are sweet, savory and everything in between. That’s no surprise, considering that in our culture, food is one of our basic expressions of love. It’s one way we nurture each other and connect with each other. It’s comfort. A chef I met last year summed it up so clearly. “All I ever wanted to do,” he said, “was to feed people and make them happy.”
For those who are nearing the ends of their lives, though, food not only becomes less and less of a pleasure but also less and less necessary. That’s a hard concept to wrap your head around and even harder to confront when you see this happening to someone you love. A person’s lack of appetite is a powerful and unwelcome symbol of decline, and a harbinger of the loss we will soon experience. If only Mom or Dad would eat, you might think, they could get some strength back, feel better and slow the progression of illness.
As a result, there is a giant misconception that the dying suffer terribly if they don’t eat or drink anything; that they will die of starvation or dehydration. Further, that people responsible for their care are cruel and inhumane if they do not feed the ill, or at least give them fluids. But when a person who is terminally ill stops eating, he or she cannot process food and fluids. Forcing the person to eat does not help that person to live longer, feel better, feel stronger, or be able to do more.
When a man I’d been visiting for a several weeks in a nursing home recently reached that point, his sister poignantly asked me, “Can’t we get them [the nursing home] to give him a feeding tube?” Of course she didn’t want to see her brother steadily becoming weaker and weaker. Of course she didn’t want to lose him. She believed that he would get some strength back if only he would eat more. But it wasn’t lack of nutrition that was causing his decline; it was the cancer.
Her brother’s advance care directive, in fact, called for no artificial nutrition. The fact is, at that point artificial nutrition and/or hydration makes people feel bloated, nauseated, and/or develop diarrhea. It does not relieve suffering. Here’s what the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine has to say: “For patients near the end of life, artificial nutrition and hydration is unlikely to prolong life and can potentially lead to medical complications and increase suffering.”
It’s better, the experts say, to offer a little food or something to drink, and if your loved one wants it, even a minimal amount, fine. If not, don’t force it. There are other ways to continue to nourish your loved one, if food and fluids are no longer an option. A light, soothing massage. Playing favorite music. Or just sitting quietly, holding hands, offering your presence and your love.
Addressing Nutrition in Advance Directives
It’s important to address the issue of nutrition in your advance care directive. It may not be enough just to say “yes” or “no” to artificial nutrition and hydration, though. Recently I came across a useful document about this, published by End of Life Washington. It addresses the issue of feeding-by-hand, which could be an issue in long-term care facilities caring for people with advanced illness and/or dementia. (And it certainly underscores the importance of documenting the advance care goals and preferences of people with dementia early in their diagnosis.) You can read the full document here.
At the heart of it, the document states, “If I accept food and drink (comfort feeding) when they’re offered to me, I want them. I request that oral food and fluids be stopped if, because of dementia, any of the following conditions occur:
- I appear to be indifferent to being fed.
- I no longer appear to desire to eat or drink.
- I do not willingly open my mouth
- I turn my head away or try to avoid being fed or given fluids in any other way.
- I spit out food or fluids.
- I begin a pattern of coughing, gagging or choking on or aspirating (inhaling) food or fluids.
- The negative medical consequences of symptoms of continued feeding and drinking, as determined by a qualified medical provider, outweigh the benefits.”
This document does not replace your advance care directive, but it is a supplement to it. This organization also has a detailed general advance care directive as well as an advance care directive for those with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia available on its website. They’re worth a look.
In the meantime, I wish you a bountiful and joyful holiday season, filled with precious times with everyone you love.