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Touch and connection at end of life

Hands of senior couple during walk in tree alley on sunny day

Touch is a powerful way of expressing and communicating love, comfort and support, and if we are lucky enough that touch will be present and important throughout our lives.

Touch can enhance well-being in relationships, the physical contact in the form of hugs, squeezes, stroking and brushing your loved ones hair can all be wonderful ways of gently reaffirming close relationships. And remember giving yourself a hug can be really nurturing too. There is also nothing wrong in asking for a hug.

But for many of us, especially as we become elderly and particularly approaching death, there can be quite a decrease in the amount of physical and emotional contact we receive.

Senior's couple walking on the beach

This reduction in contact and distancing when someone is facing death could happen for many reasons; we could be frightened of ‘doing the wrong thing’, perhaps we don’t want to face the reality that our loved one is going to die, perhaps we just don’t know what to do or say or it may be that everything is just too overwhelming and there is a need to withdraw, or even a combination of things.

When someone is coming close to the end of their life, gentle stroking movements on their hair or arm can be very soothing. When approaching your loved one tell them what you intend to do, for example stroking their arm, and if they grimace or show discomfort, stop, it might be that they are so sensitive any touch hurts. If there can be no touching, simply sitting by and just being there for your loved one can be reassuring for them. Sometimes observing their breath and gently breathing with them can help regulate their breathing, this is called synchronised breathing and breathing with them can help you to feel very connected to your loved one.

Marion and her Husband, Ian

Speaking to the person and calling them by their name, and if possible, making eye contact are all important things to do when someone is dying. Sometimes to make eye contact it is easier to stand at the bottom of someone’s bed so they can see you, as their peripheral vision can be quite limited.

Hearing is said to be the last sense that remains as someone is dying, so perhaps to be told that they are loved, and will still be loved is beneficial to all. Touch can say “I love you”, “I am here for you” and “I want to be here for you in this time of need”.

Sometimes the person who is dying also withdraws as they prepare themselves for death. They might not recognise you or other people around them. This can be quite difficult for us when we are trying to be there for our loved ones, this might make us feel rejected or pushed away, but this is all part of the process of dying.