We’ve talked about how to cope when a resident passes on, but another side of this discussion is something most nurse aides hope they never have to deal with – post mortem care.
This care is what we provide to residents after they pass away. Our job is to clean their body and prepare it for the funeral home. While we do not apply make up or position for a funeral, we give the final bath and dress the body. All of this care is the same as if the resident were still alive. There are a few differences – the resident has passed on, of course, is the main change.
When you begin the final care for the resident, you will prepare all items the same as if you were giving a normal bed bath. It will usually take two aides for this. Even if the resident was a very small, light person, it helps to have someone there to assist with turning the body while you or they are washing the resident. Another reason for having two aides- one to help steady the other emotionally. Providing this final care can be very emotionally charged. Some aides are just unable to perform this duty and may not find out that they simply cannot handle this part of the job until they are in the situation.
Something that is not always discussed in training about post-mortem care is the unexpected sounds or actions of the human body. Our bodies hold air which is often let out in loud belches or flatulence after death. The body relaxes and the muscles are no longer holding in the air. This can be disturbing for some nurse aides. They are surprised by one or several loud sounds coming from the body they are rolling over during a bed bath.
Other unexpected reflexes are: eyes opening, a sound like a moan as final air in the lungs escape during moving, and a reflex final breath. Aides that have never performed post-mortem care have been scared by a resident suddenly breathing in or the air trapped in the lungs making a noise like a cry during care. This is all normal, in fact part of post mortem care is helping the air escape from the body in order to preserve family members and friends from being exposed to what could be a very distressing situation (which is one reason families are not usually present during this final care).
As a final word, be aware that as the muscles relax to let air escape, so do the muscles holding in other things. The bowels relax and you will need to be ready for a large amount of feces before, during, and even after the final bath. Urine will also be released. In some residents you may even be exposed to post-mortem vomiting – all of which is part of your job with live residents. If you relax and take this part of your job in stride, you will be prepared to do post-mortem care.