As people age, their bodies begin to shut down. This natural process is usually accompanied by certain signs that indicate a person is nearing death. If you have an elderly loved one, it’s important to be aware of these signs so you can provide them with the best possible palliative care during this time.
In this article, we break down 10 common signs that an elderly person is nearing the end of life, plus offer tips on how caregivers and loved ones can support someone in their final days.
Death is a natural part of life, and as we age, our bodies slowly begin to shut down. For some, this happens over the course of months or even years, but for others it can occur in a matter of weeks or days.
Although the following is merely a guideline, these are 10 of the most common signs that an older person is nearing death.
Though signs of slowing down are likely to occur well before the final one to three months of life, at this point you are likely to notice a dramatic decrease in activity and energy.
Most older people begin to eat and drink less as death approaches. This loss of appetite can be due to a number of factors, including a lessened ability to swallow. In some cases, people may begin to experience difficulty digesting food or absorbing nutrients. As the body starts to shut down, it becomes less efficient at using the energy from food and as a result, the idea of food and drink becomes less appealing.
Some people also attribute a psychological component to this decrease in appetite—as death nears, people may simply start to lose interest in food and drink, preferring instead to focus on their inner thoughts and feelings.
You may notice your older loved one begin to sleep more frequently and for longer periods of time. More time will likely be spent in bed, and naps and drowsiness become common during the day as the person may have trouble staying awake for long periods of time.
This increase in sleep is the result of the body’s metabolism beginning to fall—just one of the first signs that the body is beginning to shut down. Without a normal supply of food, the person has less energy to fight fatigue.
As sleeping hours increase, you may also notice that the quality of sleep changes, too. It becomes shallower and more fragmented. Though more research needs to be done, some healthcare professionals believe this change is due to a decrease in the brain’s ability to regulate sleep-wake cycles.
People often withdraw from their friends and families as they approach the end of their lives. Though this can be difficult for loved ones to understand, there are a few possible explanations for this behavior.
First, dying patients may feel like a burden on their loved ones, and withdrawing can feel like a way of sparing them from this sense of responsibility. Secondly, a person may simply want to conserve their energy for the task of dying. And finally, some people may have already fully accepted death to the point of feeling that they are already dead inside. Therefore, withdrawing from loved ones is just a matter of following through on what has already happened in their hearts.
In the last couple of weeks before death, you will likely notice signs that your loved one’s body is beginning to shut down.
As the pulmonary system begins to shut down, the dying person is likely to exhibit fluctuations in their breathing patterns—you may notice that they respirate anywhere from six to 50 times in a single minute. As the heart slows down, the person’s blood pressure will decrease and it might take longer to find a noticeable pulse.
These pulmonary changes often cause the dying person to appear congested. They may puff their lips as they exhale, cough more frequently, or exhibit a rattling sound—known as the “death rattle”—when they breathe.
The human body is an amazing machine, capable of enduring great hardship. But there comes a time when even the strongest body must give in to the inevitable, and death begins to take hold. For some, this process is quick and relatively painless. But for others, the body shutting down can be a long and painful process.
Much of dying is still a mystery, but it’s thought that the pain is the result of the heart or kidneys shutting down, the lungs failing and making it harder to breathe, or a build-up of fluid in the stomach that puts pressure on other organs.
Fortunately, patients who are in the hospital or under hospice care can receive painkillers to take away the pain and promote peace and comfort in the final days.
Incontinence—the official term for losing control of the bladder and/or bowels—can become increasingly common in the one to two weeks before death. This is because as the body shuts down and energy levels decrease, muscles in the lower body relax to the point that the body’s contents are released.
This is totally normal, but can be extremely distressing or embarrassing for the dying person.
In the final week or two, the dying person may become increasingly confused or dazed. This is caused by the body’s shutting down of vital organs—namely, the brain.
The person may also experience hallucinations or delusions, sometimes “seeing” and “talking” to family, friends, or pets that have already passed on. If the person seems happy about or comforted by these hallucinations, then there is no need to try to convince them that what they are seeing doesn’t exist, as this could just cause undue sadness, frustration, or even panic.
Closer to death, the confusion may evolve into a coma-like state in which the person is completely unresponsive.
We all hope that our loved ones’ final hours are peaceful and free from all pain and suffering, though sadly, this isn’t always the case. While everyone’s last hours are different, there are at least three signs you can expect to see.
In the days and hours before death, circulation has slowed dramatically and the dying person’s face, hands, feet, and body may begin to feel cold to the touch. In some cases, the body temperature decreases by a degree or more, though in other cases, the person develops a mild fever.
If the dying person complains of feeling cold, it is important that a heating pad is not provided. By this point in the process of death, the skin is usually extremely thin and fragile, and could be easily burned.
As circulation continues to slow, the person’s hands, feet, knees, and hips may begin to appear bruised, purple, or mottled. This is caused by blood pooling in these areas, since it is no longer able to flow effectively.
If the person has been bedridden for awhile, then pressure from lying in bed for long periods of time can also cause bruising.
Just before death, the dying person’s eyes may become glassy or milky looking—very similar to the way a newborn’s look. This is because the cornea begins to lose its reflex as the body shuts down.
At the same time, the person’s eyes may stay open or shut for longer periods of time, the result of the muscles in the face and around the eyes continuing to relax.
Though these 10 signs are common, it is important to remember that everyone journeys towards death differently, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to what someone will experience in the months, weeks, days, and hours before their death.
What are the signs that death is very near?
As death approaches, there are certain signs that indicate the end is near. These include a decrease in appetite, a decrease in urination and bowel movements, and a decrease in energy levels. The skin may also become pale and cool to the touch, and the dying person may become increasingly drowsy with periods of unconsciousness. As death nears, the body begins to shut down.
What is the most common symptom seen at the end of life?
No death is exactly the same, and symptoms may be more apparent in some than they are in others. But one of the most common symptoms is a change in skin color. As the body starts to shut down and circulation slows, the skin may become pale or yellowish. In some cases, the skin may also take on a bluish tint as oxygen levels drop.
What are the three stages of death?
Though no two people experience the end of life in the same way, it is said that there are three stages of death: denial, anger, and acceptance. When someone first learns of their impending death, they may go through a phase of denial in which they refuse to believe it is happening. This is followed by the stage of anger, in which the individual becomes enraged at fate or God for their situation. Finally, the person comes to accept their death, realizing that it is inevitable, unpreventable, and a part of life.
What are the last stages of death in the elderly?
The last stages of death in the elderly can vary depending on the underlying cause, but there are some common symptoms. For example, many older people become more confused and disoriented as their brain function declines. They may also experience worsening pain as their body begins to shut down. There will likely be no interest in food and water, causing their bodies to become increasingly weak.
There are many signs that an elderly person is nearing the end of their life that begin to appear months, weeks, days, and even hours before death. These include a decline in physical activity, a decrease in appetite, and a change in sleeping patterns. Additionally, the elderly person may become more withdrawn and start to experience confusion or delirium. As death approaches, the body begins to shut down and changes in appearance, such as bruising or mottling of the skin, may occur. Finally, the elderly person’s eyes may begin to tear and glaze over right before death. While these signs may be difficult to witness, it is important to be aware of them so that you can provide comfort and support to your loved one during their final days.