How can I help my father, who is bedridden and has numerous health problems, face the end of his life?

A fellow caregiver asked...

How can I help my 90-year-old father face the end of his life? He is bedridden with renal insufficiency, congestive heart failure, A-fib and insulin dependent diabetes.

Expert Answer

Barbara Repa, a senior editor, is an attorney, a journalist specializing in aging issues, and the author of Your Rights in the Workplace (Nolo), now in its 10th edition.

Facing death is one of the biggest challenges we all face in life -- and you can help your dad best by making sure his physical and emotional needs are met during the process.

First, make sure he's getting the highest quality and most fitting medical care possible. If you haven't done so already, ask your dad if you can meet with his primary care doctor and any other health care professionals involved in his care. Seeking his permission first is crucial, since many older people lament the loss of control over their own lives and decisions as they age. Pay particular attention to whether your dad's medical help is allowing him to be as comfortable, painfree, and cogent as possible. And be mindful that overmedicating is a common peril.

Attending to your dad's emotional needs may be a tougher task, but if you've been around him lately and have listened closely, you'll be tuned in to what he needs most.

Most important, open the door to discussing the topic of death. While many caregivers -- particularly family members -- tend to tiptoe around the topic, most are surprised to find that older people are generally relieved and calmed by having an honest conversation about death and dying. If it's more comfortable for either or both of you, broach the subject sideways: asking your dad to identify people in an old family photo album or watching a film or reading a book together that deals with dying.

Many people nearing death want most to reminisce and remake their legacies, so allow plenty of talking time for that. To that end, it may be meaningful to help reconnect your dad with people he hasn't seen in a while: old friends and neighbors, estranged family members, former military buddies. Again, be sure to ask first rather than surprise him with a roomful of faces from the past.