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How to have the talk with elderly parents

Updated on August 3, 2016

The Talk infographic

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Death and Dying

On Death and Dying: How to Have “The Talk” with Your Aging Parents

Roz Chast, a popular cartoonist of The New Yorker, published a graphic memoir titled Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? In the memoir, Chast addresses the difficulties she faced in dealing with her elderly parents at the end of their lives. Talking about death with anyone can be an uncomfortable conversation, and can seem an almost impossible subject to breach when it comes to your aging parents. Regardless of whether anyone really wants to talk about it, there are crucial details you and your parents need to discuss to ensure that the end of their lives is handled according to their wishes.

The consequences of not having “the talk” before it’s too late can come in the form of financial, personal, and even spiritual burdens. Do you know whether your parents have a will? What are their wishes should they get sick, or too feeble to take care of themselves? What sort of funeral arrangements have they made? What will happen to all of their things when they die? Many agree that conversations about death and final plans should happen early and often.

There are many excuses for avoiding these conversations: Lack of time, your parents’ unwillingness to talk about death and dying, or even the assumption that “everything will work out somehow.” Avoid the pitfalls of these excuses and consider these five things when you’re getting ready to talk about the tough issues:

  1. Be honest.
    There are things you need to know, regardless of whether anyone wants to talk about them or ask the difficult questions. Will there be enough money to cover the cost of the unexpected? Do your parents wish to be kept on life support? Do they wish to be buried, or cremated? Avoiding these conversations can lead to a lot of uncertainty and complications later on. Try opening your conversation with a small piece of honesty: “I want to know your wishes are honored when the time comes. Do you have a will?”
  2. Be considerate.

As difficult as the topic of your parents’ death may be for you, it may be much worse for them. In today’s society, aging seniors are often viewed as “on their way out,” with little to offer the world around them. These views can lead to your parents feeling obsolete, anxious, and depressed. Consider these issues from their point of view, and do your best to remain sympathetic when asking the tough questions.

  1. Make plans.
    Making plans for the future can seem overwhelming, but it is better to make them sooner rather than later. Proper planning can relieve the heavy burdens often imposed on a family when a relative passes away. Experiencing the death of a loved one is an emotional time in itself, and the added pressures of financial issues and other important decisions can quickly become too much. Here are a few plans that should be sorted out early:
  • A plan for property, such as real estate and personal items.
  • A plan for finances, including unpaid bills, taxes, and financial assets you might not know about.
  • A plan for medical issues, such as emergencies and final decisions about healthcare.
  • Funeral and memorial arrangements, including any wishes your parents may have post-mortem.
  • Know where these plans are. Agree on a safe location for any important documents so they can be found easily.
Listen and be respectful. While it’s true that you will be the one dealing with these things once the time comes, this is about your parents and their wishes. Be sure to ask and listen to what is important to them. They may have stories about their families or lives that they want to tell you so that you can pass them on to others. They may want to talk about their personal views on life, death, and religion or spirituality. Be open to what they want to pass on and leave behind when they die. Make the most of your time together. Break the tension and lighten the mood by reassuring your parents (and yourself) that having the important conversations early and often means you have more time to spend together, and that you are bringing yourselves closer together by being honest and open about difficult matters. After all the plans have been made, you’ll be relieved in knowing that your parents’ wishes are being fulfilled and that many of the potential difficult questions have already been decided for the future.

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    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 12 months ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      We don't realize how important these conversations are until we are hit with a situation where we wish we had had them! I work for an estate planner, and we have had people as young as 50 drop dead suddenly from heart failure. We never know when our time will be. Like you have said here, we need to be sensitive.

      A great time to bring these things up is when your family experiences the death of a loved one. Then these issues are close to the surface and we are thinking about our own mortality. We are more willing to look at options and discuss them.

      That is how it came up for our family. My husband's uncle passed away, and his father was then much more willing to talk about it. Family members were present and we were able to get some things written down and decided. It helped my husband and his siblings to be ready when his father passed away.