How Long Can Elderly Live Without Food?

Seeing a loved one on their deathbed is, without a doubt, one of the hardest things that we have to deal with during our lifetimes. What makes it even more of an emotional challenge is that the human body behaves rather differently when it’s in its final stages and this includes how much the person may eat. 

When an older person is dying, they don’t need as much food as normal because being bedridden means they’re not using as much energy. Generally speaking, an elderly person on their deathbed may be able to go up to 14 days without eating. 

This can feel concerning, but understand more about calorie intake in elderly, terminal patients can help.

Does A Person Die If They Stop Eating?

Humans need food for energy. Without it, it is possible to die within a few days. However, most healthy adults would be able to survive for around ten days without food. There are some cases where a person can survive for weeks without eating. But it’s different when an elderly adult is dying. 

One of the ways that the body starts shutting down prior to death is that it’ll stop eating and drinking. It’s been seen that people on their deathbeds can go up to 14 days without eating and there are some rare cases that patients have gone even longer. 

The reason for this is mainly that, when you are bedridden, your body isn’t using as much energy so there’s no need to replenish it quite as much. Moreover, when dying, many people find the physical act of eating difficult or even impossible. 

What About Overweight People?

It is said that a person who is carrying extra weight may be able to survive longer without eating. However, this would largely depend on how hydrated they were, their health, and how active they are. 

There was one astonishing case of a man named Angus Barbeiri who went 382 days without food in an attempt to lose weight. Of course, this is not a healthy method of weight loss nor something that we would recommend. 

When we don’t eat, the stored fat reserves in our bodies will be enough to sustain us for a certain period of time. However, according to scientists, regardless of your initial weight, death by starvation would typically occur within eight to twelve weeks

The Issues For Family And Friends

When you see your loved one not eating and drinking, this can be very worrying. And understandably so. One of the main issues for family and friends when their dying loved one isn’t eating is that they feel as though they’re giving up if they don’t continue to offer food. 

Of course, many people also worry about the chances of survival past a certain point when the patient stops eating and drinking. Even if we are looking at a terminally ill patient, the family and friends will be concerned that death will occur sooner without sustenance. 

For many families, food is the centre of everything. Sharing meals with one another and showing we care by offering food is something we’re all familiar with. For those with dying relatives that are no longer eating, this can be difficult to face. 

Moreover, you’ll likely be concerned that a lack of food and drink will result in further pain for your loved one who may already be experiencing discomfort. For most families and friends, ensuring that their loved one is as comfortable as possible is their main concern in those final days. 

Why Has The Hospice Stopped Offering Food To My Loved One?

If you have a friend, spouse, or family member in a hospice then you may notice, at some point, that the staff stop offering food or fluids to your loved one. This can come as quite a shock but there is likely a good reason behind it. Of course, speaking with your loved one’s care team will allow you to get the answers to your questions. 

In some cases, staff will stop offering foods or artificial nutrition and hydration in order that the dying process is not complicated. IN some cases, using things like IV fluids and feeding tubes can cause further complications.

There could be issues with the feeding equipment. For example, infections and blockages within the tube as well as patients struggling to use the equipment because of bloating or gagging, for example.

There have been studies to show that artificially feeding someone doesn’t increase their chances of survival so it may be a fruitless activity. The use of feeding tubes in dementia patients had no impact on their life expectancy compared to similar patients who were hand fed.

If your loved one goes into a hospice with a feeding tube already in place then the hospice will not deny the use of the equipment. The staff will work with the patient and their family or caregivers to make the right decision regarding the use of the tube.

For patients who do not already have a feeding tube and who are considered terminal, it’s almost never the case that a tube would be fitted. However, the hospice team will take every possible step to make sure that the patient is not in pain and remains comfortable during the dying process. 

Considering The Patient’s Needs

When we think about food and water, we immediately consider this to be an incredibly important aspect of our survival. However, when a patient is dying, their needs for nutrition and hydration are incredibly different to a healthy person. 

When life draws to a close, the body slowly stops functioning. One of the things that happens is that we lose the ability to digest food and water. Bodily organs stop functioning as they once did and so there is no need for as much nutrition as we once needed. 

Hospice staff will look at the level of physical decline in a patient to help them decide when is the best time to stop offering food and water. Of course, this will be communicated with the family. Moreover, since no two deaths are the same, the hospice will also work with you to devise a personal care plan for your loved one that meets their unique needs. 

How Long Can Elderly People Live Without Water?

As well as not eating, a dying person may stop drinking. In healthy, active adults, there is a need for water meaning that we can only go for around three days without it. Of course, everyone is different and some people may survive longer or shorter periods of time without suitable hydration. 

Hydration is incredibly important, perhaps even more so than nutrition. How long a person takes to starve would highly depend on how hydrated they were. Look at Mahatma Gandhi, for example, who managed to survive for 21 days without food but continued having small sips of water. 

How Can I Help My Dying Relative With Eating And Drinking?

Being at the side of your loved one as they go through the dying process comes with all kinds of challenges. However, it’s important that you provide loving support for them during this time and there are some things you can do. 

If your loved one is still able to eat and drink then you can offer them small sips of water. It’s also possible to offer ice chips for them to suck on if this is easier. When it comes to feeding, you may spoon feed your loved one or even offer them pieces of hard candy. The most important thing is to let your loved one remain in charge. If they find it uncomfortable or ask you to stop, then respect that.

In cases where the loved one is no longer able to drink, it’s important to make sure that the mouth and lips do not become dry. You can use a wet cloth, lip balm, swabs or moisturisers to help with this. 

Where your loved one is no longer able to eat, you can simply spend time with them doing other things. Talk to them, sing with them, play games, pray, read or do anything else that brings you both joy and comfort. Emotional nourishment is often the most important kind when it comes to the dying process. 

Final Thoughts

It can be so worrying when you see your elderly friend or family member stop eating during the final days or weeks of their life. But keep in mind that this is a normal part of the dying process and, owing to the fact that bedbound patients do not use as much energy, a lack of food isn’t going to speed up death. 

In some cases, hospice workers will stop offering food and water to a patient, although this is something that will be discussed with the family. A unique care plan will be developed and it’s important that, in those final days, you try not to worry about their food intake but spend your time enjoying those last moments together.