Sex and death. It's odd that those two topics should bring so much anxiety to parents and children. But, there you have it. One – sex – is about the beginning of life. The other – death – is about the end. Both are a part of the lifecycle, but if anything, sex is easier for many to discuss than death.
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I've found in my experience that it isn't always the elders who shy away from end-of-life talks. Some do, of course, but many would like to discuss the arrangements they've made for finances, as well as their opinions about what measures they would want taken if they needed someone to make their decisions if they can't, however the adult children often find excuses to put off that particular "talk."
Few of us like to consider the fact that our parents will die. However they will. Nothing will change that fact. Good medical care, solid healthful habits, a pleasant social life – all of these may extend our years, but in the end, we will die.
With this in mind, it is to everyone's advantage to discuss the details at as early a stage as possible. As I told my kids when I had my own legal papers drawn up, "Let's do all of this and then get on with the business of living." We did just that, and while my sons didn't find the prospect of my death fun to talk about, they dutifully listened to what I had drawn up and where I keep my papers.
Whether it is the adult children or the parents who don't want to have the talk, this is something that needs to be done.
How to Start the Conversation
I would suggest two good books, though there are many more, I'm sure. "Creating the Good Will," by attorney Elizabeth Arnold, emphasizes legacy. Arnold has helped guide many families through the process of end-of-life legal work and she sees that there is much more than mere objects to leave behind. Some people, helped by this excellent book, may find that they want to make their values and wishes for their family's future a part of their end-of-life paperwork. The book is worth reading if you are having any difficulty in deciding how to broach the end-of-life talk, no matter what your age or state of health.
The other book I recommend is "The Parent Care Conversation," by Dan Taylor. This book is also about legacy, but has more information about planning how the parent wants to be cared for. It covers legal work as well. Both books offer insight and are worthwhile reading as each has its own strength.
How to Start the End-of-Life Conversation with Your Senior Parent
What I personally suggest to adult children who are afraid to bring up end-of-life work with their parents is that they start the subject by talking about themselves. If you say to your dad "I just read in the paper about a guy younger than I am whose family is fighting over whether he should be kept on life support. I don't ever want to put my family through that, so I've made an appointment with an estate attorney and am going to have all the paperwork drawn up," chances are your once reluctant parents will perk up.
If you are lucky, the parent may even say, "Can we make an appointment to go together?" If not, go ahead and get your work done. Then give your parents all of the information they will need should you become incapacitated. As this all sinks in, the chances are excellent that they will get in gear themselves. You will have made the subject okay to talk about. You will have broken the ice.
One problem, particularly with the older generation, is that the husband will think he should do his paperwork, but not the wife. She may never have held a job and they just don't think that she may be put in a position where she needs a will. If you stress the health directive aspect, the rest should fall into place.
And if it's your adult children who don't want to listen while you, the elders, talk of doing end-of-life legal work? Just do it. Get it done, present your "kids" with the facts, via e-mail if it's more comfortable, and then get on with living your life. You'll all be more comfortable with life, once you know the reality of death has been addressed.