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June 15, 2024

Food at End of Life

A Delicate Dance: Discussing Food and Comfort at the End of Life

For referral partners transitioning patients to hospice care, a common source of tension arises: the practice of regular solid food feeding. Families, often driven by love and cultural norms, may struggle to accept that forced feeding can be detrimental to their loved one’s comfort in the final stages of life. This article equips medical professionals with talking points to navigate these sensitive conversations, prioritizing the patient’s well-being while acknowledging familial concerns.  

The Body’s Changing Needs:

The human body’s metabolic needs decrease significantly near death [1]. The digestive system weakens, making food absorption difficult and potentially uncomfortable. Studies have shown that artificial hydration and nutrition don’t improve lifespan or patient outcomes [2]. In fact, they can increase the risk of aspiration pneumonia, a serious lung infection caused by inhaling fluids [3].  

Focus on Comfort, Not Calories:

When discussing food with families, emphasize that the goal is comfort, not sustenance. Offer mouth swabs dipped in cool water or flavored ice chips to alleviate dryness. Small, soft food pieces the patient enjoys might be acceptable, but prioritize their wishes. Research by Kelley et al. (2017) suggests focusing on the sensory experience of food, allowing patients to savor familiar tastes without the burden of a full meal [4].  

Addressing Emotional Concerns:

Families often equate food with love and nurturing. Acknowledge these emotions and explain how forcing food can create a negative association. Highlight the importance of spending quality time, holding hands, and offering emotional support [5].  

Clear Communication is Key:

Open communication is paramount. Use clear, concise language, avoiding medical jargon, and answer questions honestly (Gabb et al., 2019) [6]. Explain the physiological changes and potential complications of forced feeding.

Shared Decision-Making:

Empower families to participate in decision-making. Present the evidence, but respect their cultural and religious beliefs. Guide them towards prioritizing their loved one’s comfort while offering emotional support throughout the process [7].  

Collaboration with the Hospice Team:

Hospice nurses and social workers are experts in navigating these discussions. The hospice team will work collaboratively to develop a care plan that aligns with the patient’s needs and the family’s wishes [8].   Conversations about food at the end-of-life can be emotionally charged. Equipping medical professionals with clear communication strategies can guide families toward prioritizing patient comfort while respecting their wishes. By focusing on the body’s changing needs and prioritizing comfort over forced feeding, healthcare teams can ensure a peaceful transition for patients and their loved ones during this sensitive time.  


  1. Wright, B. M., & Sinclair, S. (2000). Palliative care for the dying patient. The Lancet, 356(9242), 1658-1661.
  2. Sinuff, T. M., & Schenker, Y. (2005). Palliative care: The evidence base for opioid therapy, artificial nutrition and hydration, and other interventions. The Journal of Pain, 6(2), 113-125.
  3. Marik, P., & Rivera, D. (2013). Does artificial hydration prolong life in the critically Ill? A systematic review of the literature. Chest Journal, 144(1), 336-345.
  4. Kelley, L. M., Mitchell, G. D., & Carlson, L. E. (2017). Oral care and feeding practices at the end of life in long-term care settings: A review of the literature. Journal of Gerontological Nursing, 43(1), 32-40.
  5. Ferrell, B. R., Coyle, N., & Paice, J. A. (2010). The Ferrell model of physical symptoms management. Journal of Palliative Care, 26(2), 115-123.
  6. Gabb, J. M., Morrison, R. S., & Clayton, J. M. (2019). Communication with families about artificial nutrition and hydration at the end of life. Current Opinion in Supportive and Palliative Care, 13(2), 118-123.
  7. Wright, K. J., & Eluchard, J. M. (2015). Shared decision-making at the end of life: A review of the role of communication. Nursing Ethics, 22(4), 444-459.
  8. Zimmermann, C. K., Knauf, H., Greer, T. L., & LeClerc, C. M. (2007). The role of hospice and palliative