Sex and death: It’s odd that these two topics of conversation should bring so much anxiety to parents and children. One addresses the beginning of life, while the other addresses the end. Both are a natural part of the circle of life, but many find that sex is often the easier subject to discuss.
In fact, a national survey conducted in 2018 by The Conversation Project found that 92 percent of Americans say it’s important to discuss their wishes for end-of-life care, but only 32 percent have had such a conversation. Why is it that we are avoiding these discussions with friends and family even though we fully recognize the importance of having them?
Overcoming the Reluctance to Talk About Death
In my experience, I’ve found that it isn’t always seniors who avoid talking about death. Some do, of course, but many of our aging loved ones would like to discuss the legal and financial arrangements they’ve made, as well as their preferences for end-of-life care and who they would like to handle their medical decisions if they were to become incapacitated. On the other hand, adult children often find excuses to delay frank discussions about serious illness and death.
Few of us like to consider the fact that our parents will die, but nothing will change this truth. In actuality, avoiding end-of-life discussions and failing to help aging loved ones prepare for this inevitability can make the whole experience more difficult and painful for the entire family in the long run.
It is to everyone’s advantage to discuss plans and preferences in depth as early as possible. When I had my own legal papers drawn up, including a last will and testament, power of attorney documents and a living will, I told my children, “Let’s just handle all of this and then get on with the business of living.” While my sons didn’t find the prospect of my death fun to talk about, they dutifully listened to the details of the plan I had created and where they could find these important papers should they need them. Regardless of who wishes to avoid end-of-life conversations, they must take place.
Resources to Help Guide Discussions About Death
When it comes to discussing awkward or emotionally charged topics, it always helps to do some research and preparation beforehand. There are countless books about discussing estate planning, end-of-life care, death and dying on the market, but there are two that I personally recommend.
Creating the Good Will: The Most Comprehensive Guide to Both the Financial and Emotional Sides of Passing on Your Legacy by attorney Elizabeth Arnold emphasizes the importance of estate planning. Arnold has helped guide many families through the process of end-of-life legal preparations, and she drives home the fact that that individuals often wish to pass along much more than possessions to their surviving loved ones. One’s values, life lessons and wishes for surviving family members’ futures can also be included in one’s end-of-life paperwork. This book is a good fit for anyone who is struggling with how to broach the end-of-life talk, regardless of age or state of health.
The other book I recommend is The Parent Care Conversation: 6 Strategies for Dealing with the Emotional and Financial Challenges of Aging Parents by Dan Taylor. This one helps family caregivers and their parents work together to plan legally, financially and medically for future care needs. Taylor uses a step-by-step approach and practical exercises to foster honest conversations among family members about challenging elder care issues.
There are also unique materials available online that can help families tackle uncomfortable questions and concerns about death and dying. The non-profit Coda Alliance developed a card game called “Go Wish” to help players facilitate discussions about end-of-life care options and advance care planning.
Another popular tool is the Five Wishes fillable form. It was created with the help of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Law and Aging to help individuals and families document and discuss their preferences for end-of-life care. Better yet, this document functions as a valid advance directive in 37 states once it has been signed and witnessed. (In some states, the Five Wishes form must also be notarized to be considered valid.)
How to Start the “Death Talk” with Elders
Adult children are often hesitant to bring up end-of-life topics with their parents. They typically worry that, with the wrong approach, Mom and Dad will find the conversation morbid, insensitive, totally pointless or rooted in self-interest. What I personally suggest to adult children who find themselves in this situation is that they bring up the subject by talking about themselves and their own end-of-life concerns. Starting with the medical aspect of the larger end-of-life conversation can be useful because it doesn’t put the more delicate financial issues front and center.
Sharing a real-life cautionary tale with your parent(s) can also help to drive your point home. For example, mention to your dad that you just read a story in the newspaper about a man whose family is fighting over whether he should be kept on life support. Say something like, “I don’t ever want to put my family through that, so I’ve made an appointment with an estate planning attorney and am going to have all the legal paperwork drawn up.” You may find that this strategy interests Dad far more than the dry, patronizing “Do you have your affairs in order, Dad?” approach.
If you are lucky, Mom or Dad may even say, “Can we make an appointment to go see the lawyer together?” If this doesn’t happen, though, don’t be discouraged. Go ahead and make your own preparations because you should have a plan in place, too. Once you’ve received your will, power of attorney forms, advance directives and any other legal documents from the attorney, sit down with your parents and go over the paperwork together. Explain the plan you have put into place for yourself and your family and give your parents copies of all the information they will need should you become incapacitated or pass away. As this all sinks in, the chances are excellent that they will begin thinking through their own desires for end-of-life care, disposal of their estate, etc. Even if they don’t ask you to take them to the attorney’s office ASAP, you will have broken the ice and made death an acceptable topic of conversation.
One common hitch to be aware of, particularly with older generations, is that a husband may see to his own paperwork and find it sufficient for both he and his wife. For whatever reason, many senior men just don’t think that their wives may be put in a position where they need a will of their own. The truth is that every single person should make an end-of-life plan for themselves. (Of course, couples should also work together to ensure their plans complement each other and account for all possibilities.)
Even if one cannot afford an attorney to draft the necessary legal documents for such a plan, there are other low-cost resources available online and through your local Area Agency on Aging. At the very least, having detailed conversations about one’s wishes with trusted family or friends and putting them down on paper are free.
And if it’s your own adult children who don’t want to listen to your end-of-life plan? Just do it anyway. Find an attorney, get your affairs in order, present your kids with the facts (you can do this via e-mail to ensure they’ve received the information, willingly or not), and then get on with living your life. Regardless of how you manage it, once you know the reality of death has been addressed, you and your family will be much more comfortable carrying on with life.