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Coming close to death

Watching my parents pass away - lessons learnt

Photo of Dee Bee
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My parents were middle class. They could afford to pass away in relative comfort and yet there were so many glaring inadequacies in the system which only became obvious when they were dying. Luckily I come from a large family - there are five of us siblings and I am the youngest so I didn't bear the greatest burden when they truly began to suffer. Here's what I learnt from watching my parents die:

  • Many old people resist change. If you try to force change upon them you could expedite their passing. For example, do not force them to leave their homes, if they don't want to. Try to find a way to keep them in a place that is familiar to them. Moving to a new environment poses numerous challenges for an old body that a younger adult might never even consider e.g. changing beds or using bathrooms that aren't in the same place. These changes cause confusion, distress and even physical trauma.
  • Tactfully suggest to your parents that they sort out all their worldly goods. Things that they have collected over the years and certain cherished valuables. Ask them to indicate who they want these items to go to. You don't want to be squabbling with your family over silly stuff when your heart is breaking. 
  • Make sure that your parent has a pacemaker that can be switched off. Think about it - you're is great pain and this thing keeps shocking your heart into beating.
  • Help your parents not to worry too much about financial issues. If they are like most good parents they will be happy to know that you are safe once they have departed. Don't let them fret in these last days.
  • If an old person is ailing, they often become difficult and grumpy. This can be a sign of dementia and you should be prepared to protect them if they have help from carers. A carer may mistake their dementia for a difficult personality and take offence at what they say or do. Try to mediate and do not take offence yourself - this is the same person but their mind is not working like it once did. Be kind.
  • Be very careful of psychiatric and other medication. Most medication is only tested on healthy male adults. Geriatric healthcare is in it's infancy. There are lots of side-effects for older people that younger people will not experience. Also, keep an eye on all the different prescriptions your parents are taking. Sometimes old people see a variety of consultants who give them medication that can be contra-indicated because they forgot to mention the other medications they are taking. This includes homeopathic and alternate medicines.
  • Don't sit by your parents bedside day and night. Some old people want to die in private. It's a strange thing but maybe they don't want you to watch them take that last gasping breath. Maybe they do - you need to find a subtle way of figuring out the kind of person they are.
  • Find out what the process is after they die. It's worth being ready so that you don't have to witness the indignity of a cold, naked body being pushed to the mortuary.
  • Ask them how they want to have their remains disposed of - this should be done long before they are on their deathbeds, with tact. Also, try and find out if they want to have any say in their funeral plans. Most don't but maybe your parent does.

These are just a few of the lessons that I can think of. Each person's passing is unique and some people are not fortunate enough to pass away in relative comfort. We need to consider this fact when talking about the end of life. It should not be down to the individual and the private resources they have available. Everyone should be afforded dignity in death.

Useful resource:

Death: a Personal Understanding

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

How do you switch off a pacemaker when someone wants to die?


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Photo of Hattie Bryant

In the US as patients we have the right to start and stop interventions.  Make sure the person who want to turn off their pacemaker is the one speaking.  If not, has that person a designated proxy who was given that instruction specifically who will tell the physicians it is time to let go.  The person may need to find a palliative care physician to assist.  Again, in the US we can fire physicians who won't do what we ask them to do.

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