There are many practical jobs that need to be done at the end of life—both to relieve the dying person and to support the caregiver. Everyday tasks can be a source of worry for someone who is dying, and they can overwhelm a caregiver. Taking over small daily chores around the house—such as answering the door, picking up the mail or newspaper, writing down phone messages, doing a load of laundry, feeding the family pet, taking children to soccer practice, picking medicine up from the pharmacy—can provide a much needed break for caregivers.
A dying person might be worried about who will take care of things when he or she is gone. Offering reassurance—"I'll make sure your African violets are watered," "Jessica has promised to take care of Bandit," "Dad, we want Mom to live with us from now on"—might provide a measure of peace. Reminding the dying person that his or her personal affairs are in good hands can also bring comfort.
Everyone may be asking the family "What can I do for you?" It helps to make a specific offer. Say to the family "Let me help with ..." and suggest something like bringing meals for the caregivers, paying bills, walking the dog, or babysitting. If you're not sure what to offer, talk to someone who has been through a similar situation. Find out what kind of help was useful. If you want to help, but can't get away from your own home, you could schedule other friends or family to help with small jobs or to bring in meals. This can allow the immediate family to give their full attention to the dying person.
If you are the primary caregiver, try to ask for help when you need it. Don't hesitate to suggest a specific task to someone who offers to help. Friends and family are probably anxious to do something for you and/or the person who is dying, but they may be reluctant to repeatedly offer when you are so busy.
Setting up a phone tree or computer listserv for the family to contact friends and other relatives can reduce the number of calls to the house. A listserv is a way to send the same message to a large group of people through email. Some families set up a website where they can share news, thoughts, and wishes. These can all save close family members from the emotional burden of answering frequent questions about how their loved one is doing.
Questions to Ask
This section has described what family and friends can do to provide comfort and ease to someone nearing the end of life. Here are some questions to help you learn more about what you might do.
Ask the doctor in charge:
- Since there is no cure, what will happen next?
- Why are you suggesting this test or treatment?
- Will the treatment bring physical comfort?
- Will the treatment speed up or slow down the dying process?
- What can we expect to happen in the coming days or weeks?
Ask the caregiver:
- How are you doing? Do you need someone to talk with?
- Would you like to go out for an hour or two? I could stay here while you are away.
- Who has offered to help you? Do you want me to work with them to coordinate our efforts?
- Can I help, maybe … walk the dog, answer the phone, go to the drug store or the grocery store, or watch the children (for example)…for you?
The National Institute on Aging (NIA), one of the 27 Institutes and Centers of the National Institute of Health (NIH) leads a broad scientific effort to understand the nature of aging and to extend the healthy, active years of life. In 1974, Congress granted authority to form NIA to provide leadership in aging research, training, health information dissemination, and other programs relevant to aging and older people.