How Do I Talk to an Elderly Parent About Dying?
There are few things that we can count on in life - dying is one of them.
But it’s also one of the most difficult conversations to have…not just with our loved ones but ourselves as well.
In recent years, medical professionals, financial advisors and estate planning lawyers have all begun expressing more concern over the vast number of older individuals who do not have their end of life affairs in order.
From estate planning documents, to medical living wills, to financial beneficiaries, Americans are severely lagging in having their affairs put into place that state their desires as the end of their lives start to unfold.
There is plenty of rationalization for this.
Thinking about our own death or the death of a loved one is an unpleasant experience. So, too, is the cost often associated with preparing the appropriate documents and finding the time to gather pertinent information to utilize in the planning.
There is also the uncomfortable part of gathering family and making your wishes clear, especially if there is reason to believe that not everyone will like some of the decisions made.
Having said that, it’s important that we all sit down and devise a plan for what our end of life wishes are and have a clear idea on the state of our affairs.
Not only will this be helpful for the person who is beginning to reach the end of life period, but it will also make things much easier on the others who are left behind.
When my father-in-law passed a few years ago, he had not prepared any documents or directive. In fact, he and my mother-in-law didn’t even have a will. And though we eventually were able to sort everything out, it took much more time and emotion than it would have if he had been able to prepare his documents and directives ahead of time.
1. Do Your Research Beforehand
Any time we need to have a potentially difficult conversation with someone, it’s always a good idea to begin the conversation as prepared as possible. Being armed with information will help keep the conversation directed the right way, and will give your audience the sense that you’ve already prioritized them enough to do the leg work behind what you are asking them for.
Some of the research that can be done ahead of a meeting about end of life planning are things like learning how to do estate planning, finding out who in your area can put together a will, and learning what types of medical decisions need to be planned for and made in the event of a medical emergency.
Many of these forms and directives can be found online. Others may need the expertise of a specific person, like a doctor or lawyer, to help initialize and finalize.
Regardless of the hoops that are going to have to be jumped through, it’s a great idea if you already at least know what those hoops are.
Especially if your elderly parent is unexcited about having this conversation with you, it will be of great benefit if you are highly prepared before the meeting.
2. Lead By Example
This rule has always applied to how we parent our children…now it can also apply to how we talk to our elderly parents.
Don’t go into a conversation about end of life care and dying until you have your own documents and directives in order.
This will ensure that there is no chance your elderly parent could point a finger back at you for not “practicing what you preach.”
It also means that you’ll have a very good idea of what it takes to prepare and execute each of the parts of end of life care you are asking of your elderly parent as well.
Though certain end of life documents and processes may not yet apply to you, given your age and health, it’s still a good idea to get as many as possible sorted before you decide to have this conversation with your loved one.
3. Choose the Right Time and Place
Another important thing to keep in mind when deciding to talk to an elderly parent about dying is that where and when you decide to have this conversation could make a big difference in how it’s received and how well it is taken.
There's a good chance that your elderly parent is most comfortable and at ease when they are in their own home and environment.
Asking them if you can come to them with this information will make them feel more relaxed, as well as feel more in control of the situation.
Timing can be everything as well.
If you know your parents are better in the early morning, then plan a time around coffee or after their morning walk.
On the other hand, if mornings are more confusing for them and they need time to embrace the day, it’s probably better to have this conversation at another time.
There may not be an option for when or where this conversation is going to take place, especially if your elderly parent is in the hospital or they have already resisted having it.
That said, do the best you can to put them at ease. It will go far in allowing them to feel as though they are still in total control of their life and what happens to it.
4. Be Positive and Patient
Finally, remember that while you’re having this conversation, it’s important to be positive and patient with your elderly parents.
They’ve been doing things for themself for a long time now. Having others - especially their own child - try and tell them what to do can be overwhelming as well as frustrating.
Be positive about the conversation and show your elderly parents the grace and patience they deserve during this challenging time.