So often we equate food with love and nurturing, so it is no surprise that when our loved-one refuses to eat, it can be distressing. The subject of feeding and nutrition is one of the most common problems that come up in caring for someone at the end of life. Weeks, and sometimes months, before people die, they often lose their appetites. It is important to understand that this is a NORMAL part of the dying process and is not painful. Less weight takes pressure off organs and patients often feel more relief.
First it is usually meat that goes, which is hard for the body to digest, and then foods that are dry or difficult to chew, such as breads and vegetables. The bodily functions are slowing down, including digestion, and the body is not as able to break down and use the food as it used to. People lose their desire for food, and often express that nothing tastes good, even foods they once loved. And if they are pushed to eat what they don’t want, they often feel bloated and nauseated, or develop other digestive problems, such as diarrhea and constipation. They simply feel more comfortable with less food in their bodies.
At this point we encourage patients to eat for comfort and pleasure. Generally soft, creamy foods that are easy to chew and swallow are suggested. Things like mashed potatoes and gravy, ice cream, puddings and milk shakes are favorites. I have also found that chunks of juicy watermelon and other fruits are refreshing and moisten the mouth. I had a patient who ate chocolate mousse every day! And small, frequent amounts are better than large meals. We are not concerned about nutrition anymore, just comfort. We tell our patients to “listen to their bodies,” to eat what and when they want to.
Do not force food. This battle over eating creates unnecessary stress for the caregiver and the patient. Remember, we can still express our love in other ways, like giving a foot massage or listening to music together.