You may think you know your parent’s end-of-life wishes, but there is nothing like a planned and focused discussion, to ensure you (and your siblings) are on the same page with your parents.
Yesterday, I attended a program that included viewing the documentary, “Consider the Conversation”. Afterwards colleague and elder attorney Doug Germann led us in discussion which shed a light on our perceptions about death and dying. This one-hour film was created to open up the floodgates of conversation within families “while there is still time.” Through commentary in the film by terminal patients, family members, health professionals and clergy, I began to understand why conversation doesn’t happen often or soon enough. Those reasons include: denial, fear, shame or just hope that your parent will live to a very, old age and die peacefully in their sleep. The experts tell us that is not likely. Most people will die in a hospital so it is critical that family members know their parents’ wishes. But, how can we be sure we know and understand?
Doug asked for a show of hands, “who has a will, an advanced directive?” Most of us raised our hands. He told us it’s not worth the paper it’s written on if we have not had a conversation with our loved ones and physicians to specifically detail what it is we want and don’t want at end of life.
By the end of this film, I came away wanting one thing for my mother. I want her to be able to “live well at the end of her life.” What exactly does that mean? Only my mother can tell me that! And, for that I need to have meaningful conversation with her.
Here are 3 key steps to help you have the “conversations”:
- Have your parents pull out their legal documents, and sit down to review them together. I can’t tell you how many stories I have heard in which parents assure their adult children that their legal affairs are in order, and the children find out otherwise after their death. As for my mother, we realized the last time her documents were reviewed/updated was in 1989 so in 2 weeks, on my next visit, we are meeting with her attorney.
- Of course, the first step above will involve “conversation” around completing/updating the legal documents. But, as Doug told us, this is not enough. He suggests setting aside several hours of quiet, focused, uninterrupted time with your parents, siblings and their spouses. Let your parents talk and share what is important to them, and what they want. Need a guide? Check out the Five Wishes document (link below) that will lead you through every item you should be thinking about.
- Then, once the key members of your family understand and are on the same page, schedule a consultation with your parent and their physician. Share your parent’s wishes, and ask the doctor, “Is there anything that will keep you from complying with my parent’s wishes at his/her end-of-life?” Now is the time to know if there’s some difference in cultural, religious, personal or medical philosophy that will keep your parent’s physician from being a true partner in this. Now is the time you may realize you need to find a new physician. But, the key here is that there is “time.” You are not in a crisis. You and your parent can make a choice and a change, if necessary.
As in every other conversation we have with our aging parents, it needs to be ongoing. We do not do these steps, lock the documents away for the next 10 years and believe we’ve done what’s necessary.
Whenever there is some change in your parent’s situation (health, financial, legal, etc.), I suggest you make time to:
- Ask your parent what their goals are.
- Ask, “how can I care for you well”.
- Assure your parent that you are there for them. Let them know that allowing you to be a partner with them in every part of their life is their gift of love to you.
I hope these tips help you in broaching this all-important conversation with your parent.
Here are some other great resources to help:
- Doug Germann’s Elder-Caring blog
- “Consider the Conversation” documentary and website resources
- The Five Wishes document and website
Let’s continue this conversation at “Transition Aging Parents” Facebook page.