Treating Mental, Emotional and Spiritual Needs at the End of Life

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Many people associate end-of-life care with treating physical pain and discomfort. While that is an important part, complete end-of-life care also includes helping the dying person manage mental and emotional distress. An elder who is nearing the end of life who is alert might understandably feel depressed or anxious. Encourage conversations, so the elder has an opportunity to talk about their feelings. You might want to contact a counselor, possibly one familiar with end-of-life issues. If the depression or anxiety is severe, medicine might provide relief.

A dying person might also have some specific fears and concerns. He or she may fear the unknown or worry about those left behind. Some people are afraid of being alone at the very end. This feeling can be made worse by the understandable reactions of family, friends, and even the medical team. For example, when family and friends do not know how to help or what to say, sometimes they stop visiting. Or, someone who is already beginning to grieve may withdraw. Doctors may become discouraged because they can't cure their patient and feel helpless. Some seem to avoid a dying patient. This can add to a dying person's sense of isolation. If this appears to be happening, try to discuss your concerns with the family, friends, or the doctor.

The simple act of physical contact—holding hands, a touch, or a gentle massage—can make a person feel connected to those he or she loves. It can be very soothing.

Try to set the kind of mood that is most comforting for the dying person. What has he or she always enjoyed? For example, Bill loved a party, so it was natural for him to want to be surrounded by family and friends when he was dying. Ellen always preferred spending quiet moments with one or two people at a time, so she was most comfortable with just a few visitors.

Some experts suggest that when death is very near, music at low volume and soft lighting are soothing. In fact, near the end of life, music therapy might improve mood, help with relaxation, and lessen pain. Listening to music might also evoke memories those present can share. For some people, keeping distracting noises like televisions and radios to a minimum is important.

Spiritual Issues

People nearing the end of life may have spiritual needs as compelling as their physical and emotional concerns. Spiritual needs involve finding meaning in one's life and ending disagreements with others, if possible. The dying person might find peace by resolving unsettled issues with friends or family. Visits from a social worker or a counselor may also help. Many people find solace in their faith. Praying, talking with someone from one's religious community (such as a minister, priest, rabbi, or Muslim cleric), reading religious text, or listening to religious music may bring comfort.

Family and friends can talk to the dying person about the importance of their relationship. For example, adult children can share how their father has influenced the course of their lives. Grandchildren can let their grandfather know how much he has meant to them. Friends can relate how they value years of support and companionship. Family and friends who can't be present could send a recording of what they would like to say or a letter to be read out loud.

Sharing memories of good times is another way some people find peace near death. This can be comforting for everyone. Some doctors think it is possible that even if a patient is unconscious, he or she might still be able to hear; it is probably never too late to say how you feel or to talk about fond memories.

Always talk to, not about, the person who is dying. When you come into the room, it is a good idea to identify yourself, saying something like "Hi, Bob. It's Mary, and I've come to see you." Another good idea is to have someone write down some of the things said at this time—both by and to the one dying. In time, these words might serve as a source of comfort to family and friends. People who are looking for ways to help may welcome the chance to aid the family by writing down what is said.

There may come a time when a dying person who has been confused suddenly seems clear-thinking. Take advantage of these moments, but understand that they might be only temporary, not necessarily a sign he or she is getting better.


Information gathered from the The National Institute on Aging (NIA) website. 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.

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