Why do people eat and drink less towards the end of life?
During the last weeks, days or hours of life, it’s normal for people to eat and drink less than usual or not at all. When someone is dying:
* their body slows down and needs less energy
* they may be unable to process food and drink
* they may be too sleepy or weak to swallow.
You can support your family member or friend to eat and drink if they want to and are able to, but they should not be forced to. Trying to eat more food than they want to might make them feel uncomfortable.
Does this mean the person is dying?
Eating and drinking less is a common sign that someone is coming to the end of their life. But this isn’t always the case – eating and drinking changes can be caused by other things. If you think there might be other reasons why your family member or friend is eating or drinking less, speak to their health and social care professionals. You might find it helpful to read more about difficulty swallowing or eating and drinking when someone has a terminal illness.
It’s very hard to know when someone is approaching the end of their life and when they might die. This is because we are all different – there’s not one pattern people follow.
If you’re not sure whether someone is approaching the end of their life, you can speak to their health or social care professionals. If they are at home or in a care home, you can ask their GP or nurses.
We have more information about how to tell if someone might be dying and what to expect in the last weeks and days of someone’s life.
Will this affect how long they live?
When someone is dying, how much they eat and drink will not change how long they live. It’s normal for people to stop eating and drinking at the end of life.
You might worry that the doctors or nurses have ‘given up’ if your family member is not eating or drinking. Although they may not be able to help your family member or friend to live longer, their focus will be on making them as comfortable as possible.
Do they need a tube or drip?
Whether your family member or friend needs a tube or drip depends on what is going to be helpful for them. Ask your family member or friend’s doctor or nurses about whether food or drink through a tube or drip is a suitable option.
If someone is dying, tube feeding is unlikely to help them live longer or make them feel better, and it can cause other problems. There are other ways that you can support your family member or friend to feel comfortable (see below).
Find out more about feeding and drinking through a tube or drip.
Can they still have medication?
The person’s health and social care professionals will look at their medicines and how to manage any symptoms. If they have problems swallowing some medicines, they might use a patch or set up a syringe driver. Ask them of you have any question or worries about medication.
Practical ways that you can help
If you’re a family member or friend of someone who might be in the last weeks or days of life, there are many ways you can support them.
You can support your family member or friend to eat and drink if you they want to and are able to. But giving them more food than they want may make them feel uncomfortable.
Here are some ways that you can help them to eat or drink:
* Follow their lead – they will let you know if they want to eat or drink.
* Offer small amounts of a favourite food or drink without pushing.
* Try to accept that your loved one may not want or need to eat or drink.
* If the person can’t speak, they might tell you that they do not want to eat by closing their mouth, turning their head away or biting the spoon.
* Small chips of ice or frozen juice might be refreshing in their mouth.
* If the person can swallow, you could give them small amounts of fluid through a syringe (without a needle) or dropper.
* If they want to, help them to take regular sips of drinks.
* If their mouth is dry, ask their doctor or pharmacist about saliva substitute sprays and gels.
* Moisturise their lips with a petroleum-based or water-based jelly (do not use Vaseline® if they are oxygen therapy as this is a fire hazard).
Who can help?
Health and social care professionals will make sure that your family member or friend is as comfortable as possible. Ask them if you have any questions about their care. If you’re not sure who to speak to, ask their GP or nurse.
Health and social care professionals will also provide care and support for you as their close family and friends – let them know if you have any concerns or questions.
How can I get support?
We know that this can be a really difficult time for family and friends. Support is available. Speak to your health and social care professionals or call our Support Line for free on .