The End-of-Life Stages Timeline

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In-home nurse caring for an elderly woman
Published:  May 1, 2021

When a loved one nears the end of their lives, they and their families begin a difficult journey. They will undergo many changes physically and emotionally during this phase of life. To provide the best care possible for them, it can be helpful to understand the stages and timelines involved in the dying process. This information can help families feel more empowered to provide their loved ones with the highest quality medical care and emotional support. The following end-of-life stages timeline can help you navigate your loved one’s end of life with confidence.

End of Life Stages Timeline

As your loved one nears the end of their life, they will likely undergo the following stages. Remember that they may bring on upsetting and unfamiliar changes in your loved one’s physical abilities and mental capacity and speak with a doctor if you need additional support when planning for end-of-life care so you can understand how to care for your loved one during this process.

Weeks Before Death

Several weeks before your loved one passes away, they may experience changes in their sleeping, eating, and social habits. These can include more hours spent sleeping, a decreased appetite, and lower desire to eat solid foods, and little desire to communicate or interact with others. Other symptoms can include increased infections, weight loss, nausea, and general pain.

During this stage, do what you can to make your loved one comfortable. Allow them to sleep for as long as they need, and do not force them to eat. Liquids and ice may be all they are able to stomach at this time. Speak to your loved one in a calm voice and let friends and family know that they may not be able to receive visitors anymore. Your loved one may need help eating, dressing, bathing, and taking medications during these weeks.

Days Before Death

Your loved one will undergo several more physiological changes in the days before their death. Their pulmonary system will start to degrade, and their breathing patterns will change. They may also begin to cough more frequently. While these sound alarming, the changes are generally painless. Your loved one may also begin to experience hallucinations and talk to people or objects that are not there. Other symptoms in the days before death can include a drop in blood pressure, frequent temperature changes, blotchy skin, erratic sleeping patterns, and changes in bowel movements and urination.

At this point, your loved one will need more help in managing their eating, sleeping, bathing, and other activities of daily living. You may need to monitor them more closely and change their medication dosages to ensure that they remain as comfortable as possible.

One Day Before Death

About one day before your loved one passes, the physical changes they have experienced over the last few months will become more pronounced. They may sleep for most of the day and will have difficulty interacting with others, though their hearing will be unchanged from their normal abilities. Other symptoms can consist of increased difficulty breathing and congestion with a drop in blood pressure.

Allow your loved one to sleep as much as necessary and speak to them in a normal voice. They may be unable to swallow, and small amounts of water or ice may be the only thing they are able to tolerate. Your loved one may experience a sudden burst of energy and restlessness, so be patient and reassure them that everything is okay.

Hours Before Death

As your loved one gets closer to the end of their life, their body will begin to finally shut down. This can lead to sudden outbursts and unresponsiveness when you try to communicate, though their hearing may still be functioning. Your loved one may experience more hallucinations, glassy eyes, cold hands, and a weak pulse. Continue to provide a calm and loving presence for them as they transition.

Supporting Your Loved One During End-of-Life Stages

The end of life is a stressful and uncertain time for those experiencing it. Understanding the end-of-life stages timeline can allow you and your family to be prepared and know exactly what your loved one is going through. While you may find it difficult to maintain a healthy work-life balance at this time, remember it is important to keep your loved one comfortable and in familiar company during this time. To support your loved one throughout this process, provide a comfortable environment in any way you can. Be sure to always use a gentle voice and soft touch with your loved one. Do not be critical of their hallucinations, but let a doctor know if they are experiencing negative ones, as a change in medication can help. Allow your loved one to eat as little as they want, as eating can become uncomfortable. Finally, be aware of the changes your loved one is experiencing and contact their doctor with any concerns.

You should consider beginning end-of-life care and enrolling your loved one in a hospice care program when a doctor has confirmed your loved one has less than six months to live, and your family decides it needs additional support in caring for your loved one. Speak to Traditions Health for more information about end-of-life care. Traditions Health provides customized hospice care plans that address your loved one’s physical, emotional, and spiritual needs as they transition, and supports families with counseling services, expert advice, and coordination of services with other medical professionals.

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