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Ohio Department of Aging Boomerang: It all comes back to you!

Boomerang: It all comes back to you!

My Family - July 2010

Having "The Talk," Part 2 - Planning for the End of Life
Don't Wait Until After a Crisis

Do you think it is too early to start talking with your parents or other older relatives about their wishes and plans for the ends of their lives? They're in good health, living on their own and driving. They seem to have enough money to keep up their lifestyle until the end. You're sure they have made plans and don't need - or want - your help. Besides, talking about someone's eventual death is just "creepy." Yet, it is this very same conversation that most family members avoid like the plague that many wish they had had before it was too late.

How do you start to talk to your elderly parents about the future?How do you start to talk to your elderly parents about the future? Many families have a history of not discussing "private" matters. They fear appearing as if they are butting in on their parents' affairs or being greedy or distrustful. You may be afraid of their resistance or you may be afraid of starting a fight, but you should be more afraid of a crisis happening before you and your parents are ready. Start by learning about the issues and options, so that you can start the conversation armed with basic knowledge and ready resources.

Don't treat this as a one-time conversation. Instead, approach it as a continuing discussion, biting off manageable little chunks over time. Someone who panics about as vague and broad a topic as end-of-life planning may have no issues with discussing its component parts, such as funeral preferences, life-sustaining care, insurance policies and so on. Focus on your desire to help your parents maintain a full and happy life, even during difficult times.

Pick one topic that you have not yet completed, such as a will or advance directive, and begin to gather your own information. Discuss the process you are going through with your parents, noting your decisions and inner conflicts. Realize that what is awkward or difficult for you to discuss might also be your parents' concerns. Ask if they've ever thought about the topic. Would they be willing to work on writing down their wishes so that you and the rest of the family will be able to make decisions according to those wishes?

Once you've initiated the discussion, other questions might include:

  • "If you were diagnosed with a life-limiting illness, what types of treatment would you prefer?"
  • "Have you named someone to make decisions on your behalf if you become unable to do so?"
  • "How would you like your choices honored at the end of life?"
  • "What can I do to best support you and your choices?"

Be prepared to share your own preferences and choices on these matters, so your parent's don't feel you are trying to make them do something you haven't done yourself.

It is normal to encounter resistance the first time you bring up this topic. Don't be surprised or discouraged; instead, plan to try again at another time. Some well-meaning parents will say that they have everything handled to avoid the conversation. Even if they have made arrangements, you still need to know what their choices are and where they have stored documents to ensure you can honor those choices when the time comes.

Remember, this is a conversation, not an argument and honoring a person's wishes is an expression of love and support. Help your parents understand that while you may not agree with their choices, they have the right to make them and can rely on you to honor their wishes. Contact your area agency on aging at 1-866-243-5678 for resources on long-term planning, including information about advance planning and legal assistance. You also can download helpful resources and blank copies of the Ohio living will and durable power of attorney documents from the Ohio Hospice & Palliative Care Organization or call 1-800-776-9513.