The final days and hours

As death nears, the body's systems begin to shut down. The dying process is unique to each person. There are some common changes however, that signify the person is dying. The resident may already be bed-bound and spending most of the day asleep. As death approaches they may lapse into a state of unconsciousness. This can last for some days or for a very short time. Family members can still talk with their relatives at this time. Even if a person is unable to speak, he / she may still sense the presence of loved ones.

The person’s pattern of breathing can change. For instance, long gaps between breaths can occur. This pattern of breathing can go on for a week or more. Breathing can also become rattly when there is a build-up of mucus in the chest. This can be distressing for families. A change of position and / or medication can sometimes help. 

In the final days and hours of life a person’s skin can begins to feel cool and clammy to the touch and / or look mottled. This is another sign that the body is slowly shutting down.

As time gets shorter, family members can let residential aged care facility staff know how much or how little they wish to be involved in their relative’s care. Some people like to help with personal care such as mouth care. Other people do not wish to help with care at all. Some family members may just wish to sit with their relative. There is no right or wrong. However, it is helpful for families to let staff know if they would like to be contacted during the night when the person dies.

Looking after yourself

Caring for a relative can be demanding. Families can feel helpless and exhausted. People experience many different feelings when they suffer loss and grief. Everyone grieves differently.  Families can benefit from taking regular breaks. Some people find talking to staff and friends helpful. The booklet, Looking after yourself, (1.39MB pdf) from Palliative Care Victoria suggests specific ways you can take care of yourself.

What to do when a relative dies in a residential aged care facility

Families do not have to do anything straight away after the person dies. Rituals may be important to some people. Some families wish their relative to be dressed in special clothing. Others may leave a special object with their relative. Some families want to help wash and dress their relative. Others want to leave immediately. Families may want time for family or friends to come to say goodbye to the person - the presence of family and friends can be very supportive. Some families like a spiritual support person to be present. Facility staff can arrange this for the family.

A nurse will contact the GP to certify the death. The GP will write a death certificate. The GP will also need to know if the resident is to be buried or cremated so that he / she can complete the necessary forms. Families also need to decide which funeral director they will use. Residential aged care facility staff need to know what families would like to happen to the resident’s belongings.


Last updated 31 January 2017