How to Stay Healthy While Supporting Someone Through End-of-Life Care
End-of-life care presents a special challenge—how do you take care of yourself to ensure you can help support a loved one through his or her last days of life?
In a way, end-of-life care for patients with cancer can be both a sprint and a marathon. While the patient may only have a limited time left to live, the moment-to-moment process of working through that time can be emotionally grueling. The patient may feel intense fear of the unknown one moment, regret or pride for goals reached or unattained, and anxiety for what happens to their loved ones after they are gone. Caregivers are often called upon to manage the moments of fear, insight, anxiety, and confusion.
The following guidelines can help you prepare and maintain support for a loved one throughout end-of-life care.
Stay strong physically
Nutrition, exercise, and sleep are likely not the priority when you are helping a loved one through —but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important. Keeping your body physically strong can help you breathe easier and maintain calm, stay focused and mentally sharp, and enable you to withstand the pressures of helping someone through end-of-life care.
- Nutrition. For specific guidelines on daily nutrition, please consult the USDA’s nutrition portal. You’ll find comprehensive resources for how best to fuel your body. If you have a medical condition with special dietary needs, talk to your primary care doctor.
- Exercise. According to the American Heart Association, you should strive for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week, of moderate to vigorous exercise. Consult your doctor before beginning a new exercise plan. It could help provide you with additional energy and strength in your role as a caregiver.
- Sleep. The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night for adults. They also acknowledge that 5 to 6 hours each night may be acceptable over short periods of time. If you have a medical condition such as sleep apnea, consult your doctor. If you plan on joining your loved one for overnight stays at an end-of-life care center, you may need to make special accommodations, such as bringing your CPAP machine (in the case of apnea).
Stay strong emotionally
Being there as a caregiver through palliative care can be psychologically taxing. In addition to helping your loved one cope with fear and anxiety, you may start to feel your own. You are supporting someone who needs you to be emotionally receptive, sympathetic, and caring, but you are aware that the end of your loved one’s life is fast approaching. Take the time to think about your own feelings, especially signs of depression or anxiety.
- Depression. Sadness, hopelessness and other forms of depression can sneak up on you quickly, especially in an emotionally charged process like supporting a loved one through end-of-life care. The National Institute of Mental Health has information and resources to help recognize depression, including a list of common symptoms. Please consult your primary care doctor if you experience these symptoms during end-of-life cancer care support.
- Anxiety. Like depression, anxiety can manifest quickly. The Mayo Clinic’s anxiety treatment portal includes common symptoms to watch for. Consult your doctor if you experience these symptoms.
Helping a loved one live out his or her last days can be a burden, a challenge, and an opportunity. You may have ups and downs, sadness, fond memories revisited—above all, it could be emotionally fulfilling to help someone close to you reach the end of his or her life with the dignity he or she deserves. However, it's important to realize that you aren't alone, and there is no shame in seeking help to handle the emotions that come along with this responsibility. Knowing how to take care of yourself can help you be there for the person who needs your strength in mind, body, and spirit.
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