Providing food and fluids has great meaning to many people as they often relate the provision of food and fluids to comfort and nourishment, and to the giving and preserving of life. A person’s cultural background can have great impact on their values and beliefs regarding this topic and should never be underestimated.
Providing food and fluids for as long as someone wants them and can safely take them is important. It is when the person can no longer take them that the complexities of ethical decision making arise. This can be an emotive issue for nurses as well as for families.
Some family members insist on trying to continue to feed their loved one even when it is no longer safe to do so. They may consider not doing this as a failure to care. They may also insist on parenteral fluids or a feeding tube once someone can no longer eat or drink. In these circumstances it is important to talk to them about comfort measures, such as regular mouth care, wetting the patient's lips and using lip balms. If the family are so distressed at the thought of dehydration, a small amount of subcutaneous fluid may be an acceptable compromise.
Other health professionals are a good resource. For example, if unsure whether someone can still safely swallow food and fluids, referral to a speech therapist would be helpful.
Some patients themselves choose to specifically request not to receive artificial nutrition or hydration at the end of their life, such as in an advance directive. Some may make this choice at the time, with or without the agreement of their relatives.
Artificial nutrition and hydration are seen by some as interventions in what should be a natural process. They may be easy to initiate but there can be difficulties when the time comes to consider their withdrawal. All discussions should take place early with families, ensuring they are aware of burdens and benefits of continuing this therapy.