Nutrition, eating and serious illness

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Sharing food is one way we nurture and care for those we love. From a Christian perspective “Breaking Bread” means The Eucharist, also called Holy Communion, Sacrament of the Table, the Blessed Sacrament, or The Lord”s Supper, and other names, is a Christian sacrament or ordinance, generally considered to be a commemoration of the Last Supper, the final meal with Jesus Christ.

Sometimes we use the phrase “breaking bread” when having a meal with someone, but when a seriously ill family member doesn’t eat the way we think they should, it can be very distressing. Here are some things to consider if you are caring for a person with a serious or life-threatening condition.

Advanced illness and special diets

Seriously ill individuals frequently have chronic conditions such as diabetes or heart disease. These conditions are known to respond well to specialized diets. Certainly if the person you care for is healthy and active, it is wise to stick to these diets as much as possible. But in the case of an advanced illness, there are other factors to consider.

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Quality of life just as important
For instance, the American Dietetic Association has written a position paper supporting liberalized diets for the frail elderly. Although the context is for nursing homes, the principles apply for any adult with an advanced illness. They state that quality of life can be just as important to the frail elderly person as is nutrition. Eating is not just a biological process. Food has many social, cultural, and psychological meanings as well. These factors have a strong influence on our enjoyment of life.

Comfort foods
As for daily living, dieticians have determined that a restrictive diet for frail elders may not be all that helpful.

If medicines can compensate for a change in eating habits, dieticians now encourage the seriously ill to add “comfort foods” to their diets.

The goal of healthy eating is to affect overall health. If restrictive diets (for instance, reduced fat foods) are altering a frail patient’s ability to enjoy life, then the dietary regimen may not be meeting its goal of overall health and well being.

The take-home message?
What individuals with an advanced, life threatening illness eat is generally not as important as how much they enjoy the experience of eating.

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Nutritional needs at the end of life

When a seriously ill family member doesn’t eat, it can be very distressing. Depending on the disease, however, eating less or even not eating can be a very normal part of the process.

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Reduced need for food
Sometimes forcing someone to eat can make things worse. If the person you care for is near the end of life, his or her body does not have enough strength to handle digestion, breathing, thinking, and fighting the disease all at once. Under some circumstances, eating, digesting, and eliminating food can be painful. Eating can provoke distressing symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, and bloating.

Reduced need for water
Toward the end, even the simple intake of fluids can make it difficult to breathe because of a buildup of secretions in the lungs. As contrary as it might seem, at the end of life, food and fluids appear to cause more distress than going without.

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