Table of Contents
As a terminally ill person reaches the end of their life, they often experience a loss of appetite and may also find it difficult to drink. This can be distressing for carers and family members, but it is very common for people who are dying.
The body can only survive so long without food and water. However, many hospices stop providing patients with either as they reach the end of their life, as dying people are not able to digest food so easily. You may wonder how long an end-of-life patient who is not eating or drinking will survive.
In this article, we’ll explain how long you can live without food and water before you die and why hospices often make the decision to withhold these from end-of-life patients. If you or a loved one are entering into palliative care, we hope that knowing what to expect can help put you at ease.
How Long Can a Human Go Without Water?
On average, people can last around three days without access to water. Exactly how long you can live without water depends on factors such as age, health, height and weight, level of activity, and environment.
The amount of water an individual needs also depends on their diet. People who eat food with a high water content—for instance, fruit and vegetables, such as cucumber, watermelon, and so on—will not need to drink as much water.
People suffering from chronic vomiting or diarrhea will lose water more quickly than otherwise.
How Long Can You Go Without Food?
As long as you have access to water, you can survive without food for between one and two months. How long you can last without food depends on a wide range of factors, not limited to weight, health, and activity levels.
The human body needs the nutrients provided by food to survive and remain healthy. Proteins, fats, vitamins—all of these nutrients and more are essential to survival. Once the body has burned through whatever nutrients have been provided by food, it will begin to break down its own tissue.
Changes to Eating and Drinking in Hospice Patients
As hospice patients reach the end of their life, they will find their appetite and thirst decreasing. This is because the body stops being able to digest food and drink properly as an individual approaches death. As the bodily functions begin to shut down, hospice patients will find that they need only a minimal amount of food and water, if any.
This development can be upsetting for loved ones and patients alike. However, rest assured that it is a very normal part of the dying process, and know that hospice care professionals are fully trained to help you through this time.
Why Do Hospices Stop Providing Patients with Food and Water?
There comes a point in the treatment of every terminal patient when a hospice will stop providing them with food and water. This is because the body is no longer able to break food and liquids down, meaning there is no real benefit to forcing the patient to eat or drink.
Continuing to provide a patient with food and water after this point can in fact cause complications. Feeding tubes and other means of artificial feeding can cause discomfort, gagging, or even more serious conditions such as aspiration pneumonia. Feeding tubes are also at high risk of blockage or infection
How Long Without Food and Water Can Hospice Patients Live?
Many people wonder, “How long can I go without food or water in hospice care?” It is normal to question what you can expect.
Without water, you will most likely last only a few days more at most, perhaps less. Without food, hospice patients usually live for around ten days. Sometimes people may go on to live for several more weeks, though this is quite rare. As we’ve already discussed, how long you can live without food and water depends on several physical factors.
The majority of hospice deaths are cancer-related. When a cancer patient stops eating, how long do they have to live? How long a cancer patient can live without eating depends on the same range of factors already discussed. However, as with other hospice patients, you can expect that a cancer patient who stops eating will live around ten days.
How Can Loved Ones Offer Support During This Time?
When a hospice patient reaches this stage of the dying process, it can be very distressing for family and friends, as well as the patient. Not only is it a sign that your loved one will soon be departing, but it can also be difficult to think of other ways to support them. Food and drink are central to our idea of nurturing, so withholding food and water can seem counterintuitive.
However, there are ways you can care for and support an end-of-life patient at this time:
- If they are still able to eat and drink, you can help them drink using a straw or syringe, and can also feed them small ice chips. Small amounts of food may be offered using a teaspoon.
- If your loved one cannot drink and has dry lips, you can apply lip balm, moisturizers, or oral gel to make them more comfortable.
- If the patient cannot eat or drink, consider other ways in which you can show your care. Quality time is often just as nourishing as food or drink. Spend time with them, whether that time is spent in prayer, reading, or in comfortable silence.
Arranging an End-of-Life Care Plan
While this is not always an option, it is best to make decisions regarding care plans when the patient is still well. It is important to get their perspective and make sure they have their say in planning for the end of their life. Having a solid care plan can ease the worries of the patient and their loved ones alike.
That being said, oftentimes these important decisions can only be made once the patient is unable to advocate for themselves. In this situation, the responsibility to arrange a suitable care plan falls to family and hospice staff.
At My All American Hospice, our carers do their best to ensure that patients are comfortable and well-looked after—not only physically, but also mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. We also provide support to the families of end-of-life patients, helping them to navigate what is invariably a tumultuous and emotional time.
If you or a loved one are considering hospice care, consider All American Hospice.