First Time User? Enroll now.
COVID-19: Vaccine information, visitor restrictions, testing, treatments and additional resources
Home > Fitness & Health > Health Library > Care at the End of Life
You will face many hard decisions as you near the end of life. These include:
Look for chances to talk about your end-of-life choices early and often. You could bring up the subject while you write your will. Or you could talk with loved ones after a doctor's visit or at a family gathering. Planning ahead will help you and your loved ones make hard decisions when the time comes.
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
Several things may affect your decision about the kind of care you want. These include:
Depending on your illness, different types of treatment may be available. They include:
Discuss with your loved ones and doctor how you feel about life-sustaining treatment.
You may have to make tough choices about whether you want:
Talk to your doctor about your illness, specific treatment options, and chances for recovery. Your family is a key part of this process. Discuss your options with them. Clearly state your wishes. Some people who are facing death have strong and definite feelings about CPR and other life-sustaining treatments. For those people, the decision for or against life support may be easy. For other people, this decision is very hard.
Some people choose palliative care. This does not try to cure your illness. It looks at ways to make you more comfortable. It can help you manage symptoms, pain, or side effects from treatment. It can also help you cope with your feelings about living with a serious illness. Palliative care may be used along with curative treatment.
Hospice is a type of palliative care. But it's for people who are close to the end of life and are not likely to live for more than 6 months. It provides medical treatment to relieve symptoms. The goal is to keep you comfortable, not to try to cure your disease. Hospice care also offers emotional help and spiritual support.
There are several places you can choose to receive care. Your choices may be limited by your medical coverage or what you can afford to pay. These places include:
By completing an advance directive that includes a living will and a medical power of attorney, you can help ensure that your wishes will be respected if you can't speak for yourself.
A living will (also called a declaration) is a legal document. It states your wishes for medical care if you can't speak or make decisions for yourself. A medical power of attorney (also called a durable power of attorney for health care) lets you choose a health care agent (also called a health care proxy or health care surrogate). This person can make treatment decisions for you if you can't make them for yourself, not only at the end of your life but anytime you can't speak for yourself.
Many people need organ transplants because of medical conditions such as kidney failure, cornea disease, or heart failure. After your death, you may be able to donate certain organs. It depends on their condition. Talk to your doctor about whether your illness allows you to be an organ donor.
It's important to talk with your doctor about your preferences and concerns about care at the end of life. Likewise, you should expect your doctor to talk openly and sensitively with you and your loved ones. Your doctor can provide information, answer questions, and advise you. But the decisions are yours.
Important questions to ask your doctor include:
Other questions to ask your doctor include:
To get the most out of an appointment with your doctor:
Prepare for your appointments by writing down your questions and concerns. Take your written list to your appointment. It will help you remember to address the important issues.
Several physical and emotional changes occur as death nears. Here are some things you can expect. If you have any questions or concerns, talk to your doctor. The more you know, the better prepared you'll be to cope with what is happening.
As death nears, you may feel like being social. You may want to see and connect with people. But it's also common for people to become less interested in the outside world and the specific details of daily life, such as the date or time. You may turn more inward and be less socially involved with others.
You may spend time thinking about people who have already died. Events in the recent past may become mixed with memories from your distant past. You may remember events from years long gone in vivid detail. But you may not remember what happened even an hour earlier.
Facing the end of your life may also cause you to confront your own spiritual questions and issues. Think about what provides comfort and support to you. Don't hesitate to ask for support from friends, family, hospice, or spiritual advisors.
Some of the common physical changes you may experience include:
As death nears, you may start to see or hear things that no one else does. You may also become agitated, or be more or less alert at different times. This is known as delirium. Your caregiver will tell a doctor or hospice worker if you're having delirium. Medicine can be prescribed to help keep you calm and comfortable.
The goal of good pain management is to have the least possible pain with the fewest side effects. Because each person responds to pain medicines in a different way, it may take more than one try to find the best medicines for you.
Medicines can be used to treat pain at the end of life.
If your pain isn't severe, nonprescription medicines may help relieve it. These include acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin and ibuprofen.
If these medicines don't help, your doctor may prescribe medicines called opioids. Opioids may be used with other medicines, such as NSAIDs or antidepressants, to treat your pain.
If you are caring for a dying loved one, it is important to take good care of yourself also. When you know that a loss is approaching, especially if you are able to participate in the care of a loved one who is dying, you may be better able to recognize and deal with your feelings of grief.
It is important that you get support to help you care for your loved one as well as to help you prepare for your loss.
When you're caring for someone who is nearing the end of life, it can be easy to think less about your own needs. But to be a good caregiver, you have to take care of yourself first.
Try to eat well, get exercise, and do what you can to get enough rest. Take breaks, and take time to do things for yourself. Don't be afraid to ask for or accept help from others.
Consider joining a caregiver support group. Talking to people who are having a similar experience can really help. And support groups can connect you to resources for help in your community.
Finally, be gentle with yourself. It's common to have a range of emotions during this time. If you want to talk, seek out close family members, friends, or spiritual advisors. Hospice can provide emotional support too. Counseling can also help you process your feelings and cope with grief.
An autopsy is a thorough medical exam of a body after death. It may be done to learn about a disease or injury. Or it may be done to find out how or why a person has died.
An autopsy is done by a doctor called a pathologist. This type of doctor is an expert in examining body tissues and fluids.
Family members may ask for an autopsy to be done after a loved one has died. This is called a requested autopsy. Sometimes an autopsy is required by law. This is called a required autopsy.
Grief is a natural response to the loss of someone or something very important to you. The loss may cause sadness and may cause you to think of very little else besides the loss. The words sorrow and heartache are often used to describe feelings of grief.
Grieving is the process of emotional and life adjustment you go through after a loss. Grieving after a loved one's death is also known as bereavement.
Grieving is a personal experience. Depending on who you are and the nature of your loss, your process of grieving will be different from another person's experience. There is no "normal and expected" period of time for grieving.
Current as of:
June 16, 2022
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: Anne C. Poinier MD - Internal MedicineKathleen Romito MD - Family MedicineE. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal MedicineAdam Husney MD - Family MedicineElizabeth T. Russo MD - Internal MedicineJean S. Kutner MD, MSPH - Geriatric Medicine, Hospice and Palliative Medicine
Current as of: June 16, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:Anne C. Poinier MD - Internal Medicine & Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine & Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine & Elizabeth T. Russo MD - Internal Medicine & Jean S. Kutner MD, MSPH - Geriatric Medicine, Hospice and Palliative Medicine
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2022 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.
Feeling under the weather?
Use our interactive symptom checker to evaluate your symptoms and determine appropriate action or treatment.
Our interactive Decision Points guide you through making key health decisions by combining medical information with your personal information.
You'll find Decision Points to help you answer questions about:
Get started learning more about your health!
Our Interactive Tools can help you make smart decisions for a healthier life. You'll find personal calculators and tools for health and fitness, lifestyle checkups, and pregnancy.