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Eating Patterns at the End of Life

Hospice Caregiving
A husband feeds his wife tomato soup while she is propped up in bed.

When your loved one approaches the end of life, their appetite may decrease or even disappear. Caregivers, as well as friends and family members, often find this difficult to understand and accept. You may worry that your loved one isn’t eating enough or needs to eat more to keep their strength up. But end-of-life eating habits and nutritional needs change, and loss of appetite is normal. Here’s what you need to know:

Loss of appetite is natural and expected.

In the days and even weeks before death, the body slowly shuts down. During this time, your loved one will gradually lose interest in food.

This is not starvation. Starvation happens when a healthy person does not get enough food, and they experience intense hunger. When someone is dying, the body can no longer absorb or make use of food. Feelings of hunger and thirst go away. Your loved one will eat less and may prefer softer foods and liquids before their appetite disappears.

Dehydration may bring relief.

There is clear medical evidence that during the last phase of a terminal illness, dehydration can bring comfort. Vomiting may stop, and pain from tumors may lessen. Coughing, congestion, and mucus in the lungs may also decrease.

Things you can do when appetite decreases:

  • Allow your loved one to choose the foods that they find most appealing.
  • Do not force your loved one to eat or point out to them that they are eating less.
  • Make mealtime a quiet and pleasant time (with candles, flowers, or soft music).
  • Make the most of breakfast — appetites tend to decrease over the day.
  • Offer favorite foods in small amounts or liquid nutritional supplements.
  • Have drinks available and consider softer foods, such as Jell-O, pudding, and ice cream.
  • Allow your loved one to rest after meals.
  • Practice good mouth care and offer ice chips and sips of water for dry mouth.
  • Prepare yourself emotionally for this natural transition.

People who stop eating and drinking will eventually fall into a deep sleep and usually die in 1–3 weeks.