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Caring for someone at the end of their life

Caring for someone approaching the end of their life can be emotionally draining. If you're a carer, you might be trying to support others as well as the person you're caring for. Often carers mention feeling tired and being unable to manage.

Or, they might wish the end would come quickly, and then feel guilty for thinking that way.

It's an emotional time and these reactions are understandable and normal under the circumstances. You should know that you're not alone. There are other family members, friends and carers who have experienced similar things.

Some tips offered by other carers for supporting the person you care for include:

  • make the room as comfortable as possible, with the person's favourite things nearby
  • use touch as a form of comfort and to express feelings
  • play their favourite music
  • read to them, whether it's a book, a favourite poem, the lyrics of a favourite song or a piece of news you found interesting.

And some tips to help you cope with your own feelings:

  • focus on what you can do rather than what you can't
  • know that sometimes 'being there' is all that's required
  • recognise when you need help
  • allow relatives, friends, neighbours and volunteers to help
  • help the staff caring for your family member with tasks like bathing or brushing hair
  • share your anxiety or concerns with someone you trust
  • try to have some short breaks
  • make some time for yourself each day, even if only for a few minutes
  • have some plans in place to make it easier to cope through bad times
  • keep family and friends informed – some of them will want to be there at the end to offer support when you most need it
  • do some form of exercise, even it's simply deep breathing
  • try to write down how you're feeling
  • don't be afraid to cry – it can be very therapeutic.

As a carer, it is important that you look after yourself. If you're feeling physically unwell, consider visiting your doctor. If you are feeling worried or need some support, you can talk to someone about your caring role.

There are services for carers that can provide additional assistance for you at this time. This could include counselling or help to allow you to have a short break from your caring role (respite care).

You are an important link

Your presence and actions can provide emotional and physical support for the person who is nearing the end of their life and help them to feel as comfortable and supported as possible.

You are an important link between the person receiving care and staff. Your relationship with the person you're caring for means you have first-hand knowledge of them and you're more likely to know:

  • their allergies and reactions to foods or medications
  • how they might think or feel in certain situations
  • whether they'd prefer care at home
  • their wishes about comfort, pain relief and treatment
  • their cultural and spiritual preferences
  • the nature and types of support needed.

Extra support

Don't be afraid ask for help, whether it's for yourself or for the person you're caring for.

If you feel you can't devote as much time to caring as you'd like to, you might want to think about respite care in an aged care home for the person you're taking care of – just a short stay, so you can take a break. If they're already in an aged care home and you think they need more support, you can ask the home if you can purchase additional staff hours to help.

Or, if you're concerned the person you're caring for is experiencing pain or other symptoms, approach medical and nursing professionals and let them know your concerns.

Carer counselling

Short-term counselling and emotional support for carers is available through the National Carer Counselling Program. This is one way to help reduce your stress and improve your coping skills. Contact a Commonwealth Respite and Carelink Centre on 1800 052 222 to find out more about carer counselling.

Carer support groups

Carer support groups can also be a good place to talk about feelings. You can meet other carers with similar experiences and to hear how they have coped with difficult situations. Contact a Commonwealth Respite and Carelink Centre on 1800 052 222 to find out more about carer support groups.

Can I also access grief counselling?

Yes. When someone close to you dies you may have trouble coping with the intense feelings of grief. It might be helpful to talk about these feelings with someone from outside your circle of family or friends. More information on grief counselling and other carer support services is available in the section on counselling and support for carers.

Next Steps:

Phone My Aged Care on 1800 200 422 to talk to someone about what options may be available:

Read more about planning end of life care.

Read more about carer counselling services.

Last reviewed: 30 June, 2015.