If you are acting as the caregiver for an ailing elderly loved one, the prospect of him or her dying while you are there is probable. At the same time, this experience can be quite stressful for caregivers, especially those who have never experienced death up close and personal before.
Here are some things to remember if you are at home with an elderly loved one when he or she dies.
Call the doctor
If the death was expected, you will need to have someone who can issue a death certificate. A death certificate is simply a legal form stating that the person is deceased. It is usually required for things such as making insurance claims and apportioning the deceased’s property to his or her heirs.
Usually the person who will issue the death certificate is the deceased’s doctor. This is not a call that has to be made immediately; for example, if your elderly loved one dies in the middle of the night, you can call the doctor’s office in the morning.
Sometimes the funeral home will have a professional on staff who is able to issue a death certificate. When you make that call (discussed below) you can inquire as to whether they will be able to do it or whether you need to call the doctor.
Call an ambulance
You should check the laws of your state before your loved one dies so you can be clear as to what the requirements are. Some states may require that any at-home death be reported to the authorities via a service such as 911; others may not have this requirement, especially if the death was expected and peaceful.
One thing to be prepared for: you need to have on hand any do-not-resuscitate (“DNR”) documents or similar documents showing that your loved one did not want heroic measures taken to preserve his or her life. Some emergency medical technicians are obligated to begin resuscitation efforts unless you can show them these types of documents.
If you do not yet have a DNR for your loved one, perhaps this would be a good time to talk with him or her about it so you will be prepared in the event of his or her death.
If your elderly loved one was receiving care from a hospice program, you will need to call the program and notify the on-call nurse. Different hospice companies have different procedures, so just let the nurse know what happened, and he or she will tell you if you need to do anything further.
Call the funeral home
If you are not required to call an ambulance, once you have taken your time to grieve, you’ll need to call the funeral home to arrange for them to come pick up your elderly loved one and prepare him or her for burial or cremation.
If your loved one had a favorite dress or suit, you’ll want to get it out of the closet and have it ready for the funeral home. If you have discussed the arrangements with your family in advance you will find this process to be much easier. You don’t want to be in the position of making these types of decisions when the pain of your loved one’s death is fresh in your heart.
Although death can be frightening – especially if you have not experienced it before – keep in mind that it is simply a part of life. If you need to take a few minutes immediately following the death to collect yourself and grieve before you start making calls, do so.
Once you start making calls, you may find that there will be a flurry of activity lasting for several hours. Before all the commotion starts, there’s nothing wrong with taking a few quiet moments with your loved one and grieving in whatever manner suits you, as Erica Lamberg explains in USA Today:
“It’s OK if you’d like to sit with your loved one’s body for a time; other nearby relatives may want to do so as well. (In some religions, such as Judaism, it’s customary that someone always be with the body until burial.) And once your loved one has been taken to a mortuary, make sure to secure their home – check on any valuables, take care of any pets, and lock up.”
Finally, take comfort in the knowledge that he or she died with you nearby.
National Institute on Aging. End of Life: Helping With Comfort and Care: Things to Do After Someone Dies. Available at https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/publication/end-life-helping-comfort-and-care/things-do-after-someone-dies. Last visited November 25, 2015.