01/23/2015 04:08 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2015

When Death Comes Slowly

A family friend recently asked me the following question:

"...but what do you do when your body does not wear out when it should have already? My mother is 95 with Alzheimer's. Her body is strong and could go on for years. My brother and all of us who know and love my mother know she, in no, way would want to be alive now."

Working as a hospice nurse I have witnessed how exhausting and heartbreaking a loved one's slow decline can be. Observing their body, mind or both ravaged by an incurable disease can be very painful. Watching a dear loved one trapped in a body, no longer able to communicate, with no chance of recovery, can be heart wrenching. And then there is the cost of caring for someone with advanced disease who lingers on. Watching a loved one hang on day after day as savings and pensions slowly dwindle can be very stressful.

Hospice care is traditionally reserved for the last six months of life but we do have patients who are with us for much longer. Family members often express their frustration and pain at witnessing a slow degeneration process. "I just want it to be over; he/she would not want to live this way," is sometimes stated with the utmost love and concern.

We all will die, this is certain -- but the end-of-life process often presents us with a puzzling mystery. It seems to me that we, as human beings, have very little say in it. I have observed people in denial of imminent death; struggling and fighting until the bitter end. I have witnessed those for whom the end cannot come soon enough. It is a rare person who fully accepts the dying process, however it unfolds. For many, the end-of-life offers numerous challenges. Balancing the aging process with modern medicine's ability to prolong life while considering the financial aspect of medical intervention and care needs; how do you consider the financial burden as it relates to a loved one's life without feeling conflicted? I would be remiss to offer a solution.

The only advice I could offer my friend, who obviously loves his mother very much, is that his sweet mother is here -- perhaps she still has work to do. She may unknowingly teach one of her caregivers a very valuable lesson. Her presence will affect people in ways we cannot understand. Every encounter with a caregiver, nurse, or doctor presents the opportunity for growth and thoughtful reflection. I have experienced incredibly valuable lessons of love, compassion, acceptance and what it means to be truly human from patients with advanced dementia.

The aging process is not for the faint of heart. It rushes forth without our willing consent. As we age and watch our loved ones age we are reminded of our true powerlessness. Part of having a family is facing these challenges together, loving and supporting each other through the good times, challenging times and painful times.