Planning for the end of life

10 minute read
 

Many people find themselves caring for someone who is nearing the end of their life. This can be an emotional and stressful time, but there is a lot of support available to help you.

Caring at the end of life

Even if you’ve been providing care for a person for years, the last few weeks and days of their life can be hard.

How to plan for the end of life

You don’t have to do everything alone. Support is available and planning for the end of life might help you to cope better and make important decisions.

Caring for someone at the end of their life can be mainly about making them comfortable. You can care for someone in their home, in a hospital, a hospice or an aged care home. You can talk with your doctor about the best option for you and the person you care for. If the person you care for is in a hospital or an aged care home, you can talk with the staff about the best option.

You should also think about what you may need to do to prepare for a death at home, or what legal duties you might have.

What to ask your doctor

Don’t be afraid to ask your doctor questions, or to ask for more details. You can ask:

  • What can we expect in the time ahead?
  • What do I say to the person I care for?
  • Where will the person get medical treatment?
  • What treatments and medicines will be involved?
  • Will the person have palliative care, and how will it work?
  • What help can I get?
  • Do I need to plan anything now before the person dies?
  • What will happen after the person dies?

Making a will

Both you and the person you care for should have wills. A will lets others know what you would like to happen after you die.

What is a will

A will describes:

  • how you want your assets (money and property) to be distributed after you die – who you would like to inherit your assets
  • who will take care of your assets and make arrangements after you die – this person is called the executor, who can be a family member, trusted friend or a public executor agency
  • what sort of funeral you want

If something changes, you can change your will at any time.

How to make a will

You should get legal help to write a will.

You can buy a will kit to help you write a will, but you should get someone check it for you, because each state and territory has different laws about wills.

Your solicitor can write or check your will.

You should keep your will in a fireproof place and let your executors know where it is. Your solicitor can keep a copy of your will for you.

You can find more information MoneySmart Wills and powers of attorney or the South Australian Legal Services Commission Wills, estates and funerals.

Palliative care

Palliative care is care for a person at the end of their life.

What is palliative care

Palliative care aims to give the person their best quality of life and comfort. Palliative care can help to manage physical symptoms, like pain or nausea. It can also help with emotional, spiritual, cultural and social needs. Palliative care can also support family and carers.

Palliative care can be given home or at a hospital or hospice.

The person you care for may need palliative care for weeks or months, or sometimes longer.

How to get palliative care

Talk with your doctor about your options. Not all places provide end-of-life care, so try to plan ahead and choose the right option for the person you care for.

Palliative Care Australia and the Australian Government Department of Health have more information on palliative care.

Preparing for a death at home

The person you care for may die at home. This may happen unexpectedly, or it might be something you have planned for.

Even if you know the person you care for is dying, it can be hard to predict when the death will actually happen. It’s important to be prepared and to make arrangements so you don’t have to worry about them after the person has died.

It may be a good idea to tell family and friends so they can come and say goodbye. You will also need plenty of support for yourself at this time.

What to expect when someone is dying

Your doctor or other health care people can recognise the signs that someone is going to die, and will tell you what is happening.

Everyone is different, but in general people tend to become more confused, eat less and sleep more in the weeks before they die. When they are very near the end, they won’t want to eat or drink anything and may gasp for breath.

Just before someone dies they may become restless, have hallucinations and even try to get out of bed. Stay with them to keep them calm. Sometimes they become clear-headed briefly in the last hours before they die.

You will know the person has died when their breathing stops, you cannot rouse them and there is no pulse. They won’t blink, even if their eyelids are open, and their pupils will become large and won’t change in the light. Their skin may become cool and pale.

You can find out more by reading Palliative Care Australia’s page about the dying process.

What you will need to do when someone dies at home

Try to stay calm. You will need to ask a doctor to come and issue a Doctor’s Certificate of Cause of Death, but there’s no rush. Do everything in your own time. If the death happens at night, it’s fine to wait until morning.

Your doctor or support team will probably have told you what to do if the death was expected. Call the doctor’s surgery and ask them to come to issue the certificate. If the death wasn’t expected or if the person didn’t have a regular doctor, you can contact the police and they can help to arrange the Doctor’s Certificate of Cause of Death. 

There is no rush to move the body. When you are ready, you can contact a funeral director to come and take the body away. The funeral director will come as soon as possible and talk with you about what happens next.

Legal steps and duties after death

When someone dies, there are legal steps that need to happen. You don’t have to do everything alone. You can ask family and friends to help, and there is a lot of help available from government and community groups.

You also don’t have to do everything straight away. You can choose to do some tasks first, and wait till you’re ready to do others.

What are the legal duties when someone dies

The first step is to register the death with your state or territory’s registry of births, deaths and marriages. The funeral director can do this for you.

You will then receive an official death certificate, which you will need to organise the person’s estate, claim insurance or deal with their money.

If the person had a will, the executor should pay any debts the person had, distribute the person’s assets according to their will, and tell government agencies.

Getting help with legal duties when someone dies

You can find more information from:

Death and grieving

Grief is a natural response to any loss. That loss might be a death, or it might be for the loss of the person as you knew them. If you’re grieving, remember that you’re not alone and help is available.

What to expect when you are grieving

Grief is an individual experience, and there is no right way or set time to grieve. Even if the death was expected, you may still feel sad, fearful or panicky. It’s also normal to feel relief, or to feel no emotions at all. There is no right or wrong way to feel.

Try to be kind to yourself, and forgive others who may not know what to say or how to support you. Don’t bottle it up – find someone to talk with, whether that’s a family member, friend, professional counsellor or bereavement support group. Don’t be afraid to cry.

Getting help with grief

Many organisations and services can help you to manage grief: