Caring for someone in the last few weeks of life

The last few weeks of someone’s life can be full of physical and emotional changes, as well as thinking about practical matters. As a carer, it will help if you understand what may happen and are prepared.

You may want to talk about legal or administrative arrangements, so that they are in order before your relative or friend or friend dies. This could include making sure they have an up-to-date will, that they have told someone where their important paperwork is, and that you know if they have any particular wishes for their funeral. You may also need to review the care arrangements, and think about whether you can still cope with caring for them.

Although you may feel there’s a lot to do, try to spend time sitting with your relative or friend. You may want to talk about things that matter to you both, or just be together in silence. And it’s important to make time for yourself too. Being a carer is hard work – make sure you get a break from time to time, and ask for help if you need it.

Caring during the last few weeks of life

During the last few weeks of life, the person you are caring for may experience a number of emotional and physical changes and symptoms. Even though these changes and symptoms are normal, they can be upsetting for everyone. Being prepared for what may happen can make the situation a little easier to cope with.

Practical arrangements as death approaches

There are a number of practical arrangements that it might help to consider before someone dies. It can help to talk to each other about how you feel.

You may find that you put the thought out of your mind for most of the time and concentrate on everyday practical matters, but you’ll probably find there are times when you can’t avoid sadness and grief. The person you are caring for will probably also have powerful feelings of sadness, anger, frustration and loneliness.

It can help if you’re able to talk to each other about how you feel. Sometimes people can end up ‘protecting’ each other, when both of you would really be happier to feel free to talk about death. It can give you an opportunity to share your sadness, to say all the things you still want to say and generally prepare together for their death.

There are many practical arrangements that can be made before someone dies, such as making a will, discussing advance care planning and arranging the funeral. It may seem morbid to discuss this with the person you are caring for, and obviously you can only do so if they are willing to talk about it. However, you may find that they are glad to be able to put their affairs in order. They may want to make sure their property is left as they want, and there are no legal or financial burdens for the people closest to them.

Making or updating a will

Try to find out if the person you are caring for has made a will and kept it up to date. If not, try to tactfully encourage them to do so. If someone dies without making a will, their property will be divided up under legal rules which don’t take account of individual circumstances. For example, when two people live together but aren’t married, unless there is a will, the surviving partner will not inherit anything, and the estate (including the house they had jointly lived in) would go to the dead partner’s next of kin. This situation can cause enormous distress and possibly lengthy (and expensive) legal proceedings at a time when people are already upset.

If the person you are caring for is your spouse or partner, it may also be worth transferring bank or building society accounts or tenancies into both your names. This makes the transfer of responsibility to you easier.

These arrangements may be very hard for you to bring up with the person you are caring for. You may feel that you will seem grasping or uncaring if you try to talk about how their property will be divided up after their death. It may also be very painful for you to plan together for a time when they are no longer there.

If this is too hard for you to do yourself, you might try to see if someone from outside can talk about it - for example, the doctor, the district or palliative care nurse, or the social worker.

If a will already exists, it can be updated or altered very easily by adding a codicil, which is an extra instruction to a will that can be added at any stage. It’s a good idea to get the advice of a solicitor, as a will or codicil is a legal document.

You can find a solicitor by asking a friend for a recommendation or by telephoning the Law Society. Get quotes from a few solicitors before deciding which is best for you. Sometimes they will make home visits.

Listing important documents

Try to make sure you know where important documents are kept, such as:

  • the deeds of the house
  • the will
  • the person with cancer’s passport and driving licence
  • any birth, marriage and divorce certificates
  • details of bank or building society accounts
  • insurance and pension policies
  • tax and national insurance numbers.

You might also want to list the names and telephone numbers of various people who would need to be told after the death - for example, executors of the will and the bank manager, employer, landlord, solicitor, accountant and doctor.

Planning the funeral

Some people like to make plans for their own funeral, such as choosing what music they would like to be played, or whom they would like to attend. They may decide whether they would prefer a cremation or burial. If possible, discuss this with them. Sometimes talking about the funeral can help you begin to come to terms with their death and give you both peace of mind.

Caring for someone with cancer as their illness develops

As a person's illness develops the care that they need may change.

As your relative or friend’s illness develops, you may find that it’s no longer realistic for you to continue to look after them at home. Try not to feel guilty, or that you have failed them and yourself. As their illness develops, their needs may change and a different type of care may make them feel more secure and safe. The demands of caring full-time may be taking their toll on you too. You may both feel that the time has come to make other arrangements.

People will know that you still care about and love your relative or friend, even if you no longer feel able to look after them at home. In fact, letting go of some of the practical responsibilities may allow you to spend more time just being together, and you can still help professional staff to look after them.

You may have already discussed where your relative or friend would like to be looked after when their health deteriorates, and whether they’d like to die at home or in a hospice. Many people would prefer to remain at home but this isn’t always possible. It can help to consider possible alternative arrangements that you would both feel happy with. If you find this too distressing, tell your key worker that you need more help. They might suggest that the person you are caring for goes into hospital, or spends some time in a hospice.

Emotional changes

The person you are caring for may have a lot of different emotions that can include worry, anxiety, panic, anger, resentment, sadness and depression. It’s natural to be worried or anxious when you’re facing death. They may also feel the decline in your health and worry about the loss of their role in the family or with friends.

Encouraging them to talk about how they’re feeling can help.

It’s not uncommon for people to become withdrawn. For some this may be due to depression, which health professionals can help with. For others, it’s a natural part of gradually withdrawing from the world. They may find themselves losing interest in the things and the people around them, even close family.

It may be upsetting if your relative or friend seems uninterested in you. It may feel as though they are giving up when you want them to stay alive, but remember it’s often a natural part of dying. They may seem angry or very anxious and it’s important to really listen to what they’re saying and acknowledge their feelings. Although it may not feel as though you’re doing much, just being there and listening can be more helpful than you think.

Saying important things

Occasionally, a dying person remains aware and able to talk until very close to the end, and can have a meaningful conversation with loved ones. However, this is the exception rather than the rule, so it’s important to try to say all the things that you want to much earlier, if you can.

Looking after yourself

Caring can be physically and emotionally hard work. If you’ve been looking after your partner, relative or friend for some time, you may start to feel drained. It’s also common to have a lot of intense emotions, including anger or resentment, towards the person you’re looking after. If you feel like this, it’s important to tell your GP or one of the nurses so they can help you cope.

You may find that you have very little time for yourself. This can be frustrating and may make you feel trapped or claustrophobic.

It’s important to look after yourself too. So think about making arrangements for someone to come in regularly so you can have some time to yourself, even if it’s only for a few hours a week. If there isn’t a relative or friend who can help, you can search our website for other helpful organisations offering support. Having some support and help can allow you to regain your previous role as a partner, friend, son or daughter.

When you get time off from caring, try to relax. It’s tempting to spend the break clearing up the house or doing the washing, but doing something you enjoy can help to revive your energy. You can also spend time just sitting with and talking to the person you’re caring for, as this can be very rewarding.

Working together to create information for you

We worked with Marie Curie Cancer Care to write our End of life information.

Thank you to all of the people affected by cancer who reviewed what you're reading and have helped our information to develop.

You could help us too when you join our Cancer Voices Network.

Back to Understanding what will happen

In the last few weeks

During the last few weeks of life, you may experience a number of emotional and physical changes and symptoms.