When Death Is Near
My mother has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and I need to make travel arrangements for visitors. How do I know how much time we have left?

When someone in the family is diagnosed with a terminal illness, it’s important to do things sooner than later, rather than wait for the right time. The timing of a visit depends on how much visitors will want to talk and interact with your mother. Some people want to visit when the dying person has enough energy to talk and interact. Others want to visit when someone is closer to the end of life. This is a choice that requires you to focus on what’s best for you, your mother and the rest of your family.

There are specific indicators that suggest when a person's health is deteriorating. The first is general physical condition. A person who is dying will progress from doing regular activities, to tiring quickly with exertion, to sitting or staying in bed most of the time, and eventually not getting out of bed at all. This deterioration can be gradual or quick.

A second indicator is how a person is eating. A loss of appetite and dramatic weight loss are signs that death is approaching. When someone is no longer eating or drinking there are usually a few days of life left, although it can be as much as two weeks if the person has reserves of strength.

Much closer to death, a person’s breathing changes, becoming more irregular and sometimes noisier. Mental state may also change and the person can become confused, restless, withdrawn and unconscious.

It’s helpful to watch for what’s called the momentum of change. If a patient’s condition changes from one week to another, there are likely weeks of life left. If there are changes from one day to another, there are likely days left. When changes happen from hour to hour, then death usually is hours away. This is a general guideline; sometimes a crisis develops and someone dies sooner than expected. Families need to prepare for this possibility.