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Talking with parents about end-of-life issues

by Carol Bradley Bursack, Editor-in-Chief

When all matters dealing with health and finances are taken care of ahead of time, families can relax knowing that when death does come, the grief process won't be muddled with frantic legal work. Talking about end-on-life issues early on is highly recommended.

Talking With Parents About End-of-Life Issues: How Do You Bring It Up?

Since, because of my work I'm steeped in elder issues, guilt finally made me face end-of-life legal work head on. I felt like a hypocrite not dealing with it, when I constantly advise other people to do so. Most people don't have this force behind them and it's easier to put off the unpleasantness of thinking about death.

When I got my Power Of Attorney, health directive and will drawn up, my adult sons were uncomfortable with the subject because they were forced to think that, yes, one day Mom will die. But they soldiered on, we did it, and as I told them, "Now, we can get back to the process of living."

End of Life Issues: What If Adult Children Are Reluctant to Discuss the Issue?

Okay. So, how do you start such a conversation? That depends on who is the reluctant party. Many think it's the elders who don't want to talk about end-of life issues, when in reality it's often the adult children.

My opinion is if you are a senior and your adult children don't want to discuss it, just go to an estate attorney, get the work done and then present them with the documents and/or the information on how to get the documents when they need them.

One thing to remember is that a health directive/living will does no good locked in a drawer. A copy of this document should be kept with your medical records by the clinic of your choice. Your adult children should each have a copy and any other friends/relatives named as people who can make health care decisions for you should also have one.

If you are in car accident and left in a situation where life support measures are being considered, you need to make sure your wishes are down in writing so that your family doesn't have to make gut-wrenching choices because they don't know what you would want. That would only compound their agony. The rest of the papers can be kept in a safety deposit box or other safe place as long as your appointed representatives know where they are.

End of Life Issues: What About Reluctant Seniors?

If it's the parents who don't want to "go there," then you need to start gently. The idea of death may make them feel vulnerable, especially if they have health issues. Then, too, you don't want them to think you feel they already have one foot in the grave, so it can get touchy.

First, there are several books that can help you with these discussions. Although there are many more, I'll recommend these three as I've reviewed them in the past.

  1. How to Say it To Seniors by David Solie
  2. Creating the Good Will by attorney Elizabeth Arnold
  3. The Parent Care Conversation by Dan Taylor

All three books can give you ideas on how to bring up this topic in a sensitive manner and if your aging parents are interested, the last two, especially, should give them ideas on how to express their wishes in a way that feels comfortable.

End of Life Issues: Plant the Seed

If your parents just don't want to talk about it, go and get your own legal work done. Anyone at any age can have an accident and everyone should have these documents in place. It's never too soon.

You can say, "Dad, a friend of mine ended up in the hospital and nearly died. That got me thinking about what I need to do, legally, to help my family in case that happens to me. I'm going on Tuesday to see an estate attorney to get the papers drawn up and then I'll give you copies."

Then drop the issue.

Chances are very good at this time Dad may say, "Hey, can we do this together? I've been putting it off and I know I shouldn't."

Even if he doesn't immediately respond, you have planted the seed. The odds are good the seed should sprout and the good intentions can mature into action.

Example is often the best persuasion.