Talking about the realities of death is always hard, especially when it comes to your parents. But the earlier you have the tough conversations about end-of-life planning, the sooner you’ll all feel the comfort of knowing that you’ve left nothing unsaid.
How to Start
Don’t wait for your parents to raise this topic first. They might be waiting for you to do it. In a national survey conducted by The Conversation Project, one-fifth of people said they were waiting for their loved one to start the conversation about end-of-life planning. Nine out of 10 respondents said they believed that having these discussions was important. Whenever you feel hesitation about bringing up the topic, tell yourself that your parents will be relieved when you do.
Think about how you and your parents have navigated big talks in the past, as well as their specific temperaments. If they’re very private or not prone to talking a great deal or if they dislike surprises, then you might want to broach the topic by writing a letter. Explain that you want to start talking about their wishes for the coming years and ask to arrange a time when you could talk more about those wishes. Then when you sit down to talk, they’ll have had some time to gather their thoughts.
If sitting down for a face-to-face talk feels uncomfortable, then ask your parents to go for a walk with you or start the talk casually while you’re flipping channels together. If you have siblings, you may want to ask that they participate in these talks too.
What to Say
Before you start talking, take a few minutes to relax and focus on your message. Remind yourself that your parents hopefully still have lots of time and that this conversation isn’t about saying good-bye. It’s about making sure your parents are comfortable and taking the guesswork out of complicated issues you’ll face later, like deciding whether to choose burial or cremation. It’s a good thing.
You can begin the talk by saying something like, “I have some questions about your wishes for the rest of your lives.” Alternatively, try linking the conversation to someone you know with a phrase like, “I remember how hard it was for you when Grandma died and you didn’t know what kind of memorial service she wanted. I want to make sure that doesn’t happen with us. Can we talk about some of your wishes for the end of your life?”
Topics to Cover
- Find out whether your parents have a will and whether each of them has a power of attorney, or POA. If either of your parents is ever incapacitated, his or her POA will determine who gets to make health and financial decisions on his or her behalf. Help your parents make an appointment with an attorney if they haven’t yet completed these documents.
- Ask about what kind of insurance and other financial resources your parents have. You’ll want to know if they have the means to pay for their own medical care and living expenses for the rest of your lives.
- Request copies of all important documents to keep in your personal files. This includes birth certificates, wills and POAs, medical records, property records, financial documents, insurance documents, and lists of any doctors, attorneys, and financial planners they work with.
- Ask your parents to talk about where they would prefer to live out their final days. If they’re still living independently, talk about whether they’re open to moving into a retirement home or assisted living center. Find out whether your parents would prefer to die at home, in hospice, or in a hospital if they were given the choice. Ask about things like how they feel about being kept alive using life support and whether they want to donate their organs.
- Talk about how your parents want to spend their remaining years. Perhaps they want to travel or spend as much time with family as possible. You might also request that your parents take some time to create records of family history so that their memories don’t die with them.
- Talk about the kind of funeral services each of your parents would like to be given. Ask whether they plan to be buried or if they prefer cremation. If it’s the former, ask where they want to be buried and whether they already own a funeral plot. If it’s the latter, ask what they would like done with their ashes. If they haven’t yet made these arrangements, offer to accompany them to a funeral home or contact a cremation services company like the Neptune Society or offer to make these arrangements yourself.
This isn’t a one-time conversation. Once you feel like you’ve gotten a sense of your parents end-of-life plans, say something like “I’m so glad that you shared all this with me. Let’s keep talking about this. If you think of anything else you want to tell me or if I think of anything else I want to know, then let’s agree to get in touch.”