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Talking About Death with Your Parents

We live in a society of euphemisms. Rather than saying someone has died, we say "passed on." Rather than say, hundreds of people are losing their jobs, we say the company was "downsized." So how do you have a straightforward conversation about dying with your mom or dad? Do you really need to even have the conversation? If we're to listen to the researchers and all of those who have "been there," the answer is yes.

It's not uncommon for those who are dying to give you cues and opportunities to engage in the conversation. It might start off with a vague reference of when I'm gone or let's go over my finances or they might start giving you things that were mutually understood to be given to you after their death. Don't walk away from these moments. Your instinct might be to say, "Come on, Mom, you're fine," or "Let's talk about it another time." If your parent brings it up, engage the opportunity.

Share with your parent how hard the conversation is for you, too. How much he or she means to you and how you can't imagine being without Mom or Dad. But also share with your parent how much you want to treasure this final time together, and that means carefully planning and making decisions now so that Mom or Dad's needs can be met.

If, on the other hand, your parent hasn't brought it up, you might need to be the one to do so. The National Hospice Foundation recently commissioned a study on American opinions about end-of-life decisions. They learned that one out of four baby boomers would not bring up issues related to their parent's death even if they knew their parent had only six months to live. Yet, parents said that they would rely on family members to carry out their wishes. Now, wait a minute. How are you going to know those wishes without talking about it?

Here are some suggestions from the National Hospice Foundation (and some thoughts from my own experience) on how to talk with Mom and Dad regarding end-of-life decisions:

  • Before initiating the discussion, do some homework and learn about the end-of-life options in your community (hospice care, volunteers, home health services, faith-based programs). Plan for the discussion; it's really not a spur of the moment kind of thing.
  • Familiarize yourself with advance directives, living wills, durable power of attorney, and "Do Not Resuscitate" orders. Doing so will help you determine the kinds of questions you need to explore with your parent, so you'll have the answers.
  • Choose a quiet, private place to hold a one-on-one conversation.
  • Ask permission from your parent to have the discussion. For example, "Dad, I'd like to talk about how you would like to be cared for if you got really sick. Is that okay?" Or, "Mom, I really want to do the right thing if you ever got very sick. I'd feel better if I knew what you want. Could we talk about it?"
  • Allow your parent to set the pace. Don't rush in to fill up the silence. Stay focused: You are having this conversation because you want to learn from your parent what his or her wishes are so that you can fulfill Mom or Dad's needs. This isn't about you.
  • Listen. Repeat what you've heard your parent say to you. For example, "Mom, what I hear you say is that you want to stay at home for as long as possible. In fact, if it's medically possible and you won't be in pain, you would rather spend your last days here at home rather than in the hospital."
  • Once you've had this discussion, you can set up another time to detail Mom or Dad's wishes in writing through an advance directive or a living will.

Remember, the goal of this discussion is to help you find out what your mom or dad wants regarding his or her end-of-life care. Your job is to assure Mom or Dad that his or her needs and wishes will be met.

Some people won't discuss the issue no matter what, and you'll need to respect your parent's wishes. Or you, personally, might find it an impossible task. Perhaps someone else in the family is better suited to have the conversation.

More on: Aging Parents

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Caring for Aging Parents © 2001 by Linda Colvin Rhodes, Ed.D. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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