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The Cares of End of Life

How caregivers can help


The only certainties in life, the saying goes, are death and taxes. Most people are still far more comfortable talking about the latter. While end-of-life care and planning can be fragile and fraught topics, they’re also vital for everyone’s well-being, caregivers in particular.

End-of-life care can be defined as the care given to those who are nearing the end of life and have stopped treatment to cure or control disease. The goal is to control pain and other symptoms so the person can be as comfortable as possible, which is why it’s sometimes also called comfort care. It includes physical, emotional, social, and spiritual support for patients and their families.


Doulas for end of life

Planning for end of life includes emotional and practical considerations. The first step is opening up the conversation, explains Sue Phillips, vice president of End-of-Life Doula Association of Canada. End-of-life doulas support a person during the dying process according to their needs, beliefs, and desires, whether over months or years, regardless of diagnosis or illness.

“Many people continue to be afraid to prepare for death, which includes pre-planning when they are well,” Phillips says. “Often a prevailing thought process is ‘if we don’t talk about it, it won’t happen.’

“A person’s age and unique situation can be deciding factors. Baby boomers are opening up to planning, and this could include working with a death doula. They [may] also be open to dying at home or hospice and often want to explore green or natural burial and other methods of body disposition. Their plans may include holding a ‘celebration of life’ before they die.

“Of course, a big difference now in Canada is that we have access to medical assistance in dying (MAiD), which can make a marked difference for many people when they are considering their choices.”


Health care at end of life

The impacts of end-of-life care on the health care system can be significant. Research suggests that people who die in the hospital undergo more intense tests and procedures than those who die anywhere else. Hospital deaths are not only more intrusive but also more expensive than deaths elsewhere.

And with Canada’s health care system being strained, dying in hospital is likely far less comfortable and calm than elsewhere. Phillips notes that many marginalized communities don’t have equal access to care and support, and these individuals are typically far less comfortable thinking about or planning for their end of life even when they’re very ill.


Talking about end of life

By speaking about and planning for death, people can increase their literacy on the subject. They’ll gain more power over and knowledge of their responsibilities and options, whether for themselves or for someone they are caring for.

Taking a close look at wishes, needs, and desires around end of life means exploring emotional and financial aspects.

“Emotionally, it can be very difficult for people to talk about their needs around illness and death,” Phillips adds. “Again, it might come a bit easier for baby boomers to explore their deeper feelings where older generations can simply be more practical about the death journey.

“This is another area where a death doula can be of great assistance, by creating safe and comfortable spaces for these courageous conversations. Sometimes that person outside the family or care circle can make it easier for others to share. Hopefully, these conversations can lead to people exploring all they will need as they approach death, things like their personal comfort.”


Dealing with financial practicalities

“Financially, where possible, it is very important to consider your choices and prepare for them,” Phillips says. “Older generations [may] familiar with this idea and often choose their funeral home and purchase their cemetery plot long before they need it. It is a security that [comes] not wanting to leave it to loved ones to deal with after they are gone. It can be a heavy burden lifted when a loved one has ‘taken care of business’ in this manner.”


Support for the caregiver

Being a caregiver for someone at the end of their life can be a rewarding journey but also a very taxing one, emotionally and physically. They are facing immense stress and unknown territory, and may feel overwhelmed.

“It is extremely important for that caregiver to know when they themselves need support,” Phillips says. “We cannot help others if we are depleted ourselves.”


Resources for caregivers

There are many resources for people caring for someone who is dying:

·         The Caregiver Guide Handbook from the Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association is available for free download at

·         Carers Canada ( is a national coalition dedicated to increasing recognition and support for caregivers.

Ask for help 

Whether through an end-of-life doula or through family, friends, and neighbours, caregivers benefit from asking for help with things such as errands, laundry, cleaning, and cooking. They also need to make sure their own heath care needs are met and that they have time to rest and have a break to do something enjoyable

Remember self-care

Some other things caregivers can do to take care of themselves include eating a well-balanced diet, drinking plenty of water, exercising, listening to guided relaxations, and setting limits on what they can do.

Engage in social interaction 

Social interaction and support are a crucial component for caregivers during such a challenging time.

“We are learning more about the importance of social connections,” Phillips says. And that applies to caregivers especially. “Creating opportunities to share a conversation or a meal with someone outside of the illness situation can help energize a person as well as keep our minds sharp,” she says. “Isolation is not our friend, and it is easy to become isolated.

“People worry about being the person who ‘only talks about their situation.’ I believe one of the best ways to combat this is to surround ourselves with people who have experienced something similar; perhaps find a support group.”

Communal spaces where people can explore their thoughts and feelings around death and grief without fear can be extremely helpful, she adds. Including children in the conversation is helpful also.

“Help them feel less afraid rather than trying to protect them from it,” Phillips says. “In my opinion, death deserves as much respect, beauty, and dignity as birth.”


Supplements for support

During life-limiting illnesses, nutritional needs may not be met due to difficulties in eating or lack of appetite. There may be supplements that can help, but caregivers should consult a health care practitioner to determine what’s best for the patient’s needs.


Possible benefits 


improve digestion and/or constipation


aid in better sleep


reduce inflammation; slow down loss of muscle tissue; reduce fatigue

protein powders

help with malnutrition

vitamin D

support immune and nervous systems to reduce risk of infection


relieve pain, nausea, and vomiting; ease anxiety; improve appetite


A final gift

There is a surge of energy before death often referred to as “terminal lucidity.” This is when a dying person, who may have been unresponsive or unconscious, suddenly becomes clear-minded, alert, and communicative.



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