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It's Time To Talk About Death With Your Aging Parents

It's not an easy conversation to have with loved ones, but it's necessary.
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Thinking about the death of an aging parent is often sad and scary, and talking with your parent about it can feel like a daunting task. But especially now, during a global pandemic, where we’re seeing higher rates of illness and death among seniors, it’s a conversation that needs to happen.

Toronto-based death doula Sandra Brunner says “You’re never really taught that it’s OK to have these conversations about things like people’s remains or their money or their home.” And added to that, she says, “in our society people often have a general fear of death.”

But the fact is, talking about death with your parents can actually decrease everyone’s anxieties. Encouraging your parents to think about what they want means you can help make sure their end-of-life wishes are respected. Brunner advises:

“If you don’t talk with your parents about what they want, there is the possibility you’ll be dealing with higher stress down the line, and you could end up having to manage weird family dynamics and conflicts around all the decisions that need to be made.”

“Talking about feelings and beliefs about what happens after death, with your aging parent, may make them feel less afraid or alone.”

Kicking off the conversation

So how do you launch into the death talk? It all depends on the relationship you have with your parent and their comfort level around the fact that one day they ― like all of us ― will die.

“You could start with saying something simple and direct like ’Just wondering if you have thought about your will, and if you have all your paperwork in order,” suggested Brunner. Explain that you’d like to help make things easier for them and ensure they have autonomy over such an important part of life.

Another approach is to bring up an item with sentimental value, and ask “Would you be willing to make sure this goes to me when you’re gone?” suggested Brunner. That could then lead to you asking “Do you have a list?” so you can ensure your parent is thinking about whom they’d like to inherit their other possessions and assets, after their death.

We should all have our own documents in order, Brunner advised, regardless of whether we’re in our senior years or not. So yet another way for grown-up children to broach the topic with their aging parents is by saying something along the lines of “I have an appointment next week with my estate lawyer and I’m organizing my will and power of attorney; do you want me to make an appointment for you with someone as well?”

Talking about feelings and beliefs

The spiritual and emotional sides of death are so important, and your parent may be having evolving thoughts and feelings about death as they age and start to lose more of their peers.

Talking about feelings and beliefs about what happens after death with your parent may make them feel less afraid or alone, and it could actually deepen your relationship, as you come to understand such an intimate aspect of their inner life.

Just bear in mind that there are as many ways to think about death as there are people. German photographer Walter Schels created an exhibition around how dying people in a hospice were thinking about death in their final days. He photographed them shortly before and after their death, to observe how their faces changed. It’s worth exploring his work to get a sense of just how diverse people’s experiences and emotions can be as they approach the end of their lives. Or find a virtual death salon, an emerging trend that offers a space where people can get comfortable talking about death by starting with strangers.

Choosing an executor

“Make sure your parents has figured out who their executor will be ― and if they’ve asked that person if they’re willing to take on that role,” said Brunner. “It’s quite laborious, dissolving and sorting out somebody’s estate, so, it’s very important to make sure the person you’ve chosen is up for the task.”

Also, sometimes the best person for the job is not a family member, but not everyone’s aware that it’s even an option to hire an independent executor. Say there are multiple siblings in a family, who might not agree with decisions being made by one — your parent could ask at their bank to work with an executor from their estate planning department.

You should also talk with your parent about the importance of making a will that clearly indicates how their estate should be divided. Worth noting: The writer of the will is under no obligation to show it to anybody before their death, so it’s good to make your parent aware of that.

Planning a funeral or celebration of life

“It usually ends up being cheaper, if you plan a funeral well in advance, and it takes a lot of the stress out of the equation for your loved ones,” said Brunner. If a parent pre-arranges their burial or cremation, or whatever they want to happen to their remains, grieving family members won’t have to feel guilty about the decisions made, say if the casket is not one of the most expensive ones and there are no flowers, because their deceased parent preferred donations be made to their favourite charity.

“In my work as a death doula, I’ve seen people plan things like the exact colour of flowers they want at their funeral, who not to invite, and what newspaper they want their obituary to be in,” said Brunner. “I’ve seen end-of-life plans with pages and pages of details and some that have said ‘Just make sure I’m cremated and do the most economical thing you can with my remains.’”

It's important that your aging parent have the chance to express their wishes around all aspects of their end-of-life care.
nito100 via Getty Images
It's important that your aging parent have the chance to express their wishes around all aspects of their end-of-life care.

Choosing a personal-care power of attorney

People can choose a power of attorney for personal care and one for financial care. The personal-care one will make decisions on your behalf when you’re deemed to be no longer able to do so, about things like moving into a long-term care home or having medical procedures.

It’s important that your parent express their wishes, if possible, when they’re still fit to do so. “Some people say ‘Do everything to keep me alive for as long as possible,’ and some people say ‘As soon as things start to fail, just tell them Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) ― I just want comfort measures.’”

“When the person is still able to, have them decide when they want a DNR signed. They can write out a document that outlines all of their wishes, around medical care, and things like if they want people around them in their final days, or if they want to be at home or in the hospital,” said Brunner. While those wishes could still be overruled by a personal power of attorney, for them to know what the dying person wants helps them make better decisions and cope with their own feelings around making those decisions.

Choosing a financial-care power of attorney

This person will do things like cease your parent’s phone bill or make sure their mortgage payments are handled until their house is sold, after their death or if they become too ill to handle their own affairs.

In discussing the choice of a financial-care power of attorney with your parent, you can help them identify a family member who’d be best for this role or figure out if they’d be better off with an independent financial advisor, say from their bank.

Getting a head start

Brunner said she’s had people call her to ask for help making their own funeral arrangements, only to say “I’ve been given a week to live.” That’s really too late to be planning, if the goal was to alleviate loved ones’ stress.

“If you have just days left, spending hours with me is not the best use of your time,” the death doula will respond. She can help someone close to death talk things through and find some peace in making some decisions, but ideally, that work would happen earlier and interfere less with living out one’s last days.

Many aging parents are afraid of being a burden, so they simply try and avoid thinking or talking about their own death. It can be reassuring to them to know you want to get the planning taken care of sooner rather than later, because once the details are taken care of, there’s more opportunity to simply focus on your relationship and appreciate the time that remains.

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