On Death and Dying: How Do We Talk Parents Out of Denial and Into Getting the Legal Work Done?
Our culture does its best to evade death. Youth rules, and if someone gets sick there must be a cure. However, there is no cure for death from old age. The best doctor in the world will not stop the inevitable. We will all die.
Only in the last decade or so have end-of-life wishes become something discussed readily and, for some people, it's still a subject that is best avoided. It seems, for some, that discussing plans for what we'd like if we were to become unable to make medical decisions for ourselves is to bring on catastrophe. I know many people who have not made out a will for the disposal of their assets. They just assume it will all go to the family and there is no need.
Few of these people would think of themselves as selfish, but they are. Having someone designated as Power Of Attorney for our finances, a will for distribution of assets (whether worth money or only sentiment), and a Health Directive with a Living Will, sometimes called a Durable Power Of Attorney for Health Care, is one of the greatest gifts we can give our families. These legal documents can save our loved ones no end of grief, confusion, in-fighting and second guessing should we become incapacitated or suddenly die. Once we've spelled out our wishes in legal documents, we can then get on with the business of living, knowing that we've done our bit to make our deaths easier for our loved ones.
What if your parents haven't done this legal work? It's a huge problem if the parent has been diagnosed with dementia and is in a stage where they are not competent to make decisions. You may need to have a judge decide what has to be done for them. For some of you reading this, this is where you are in the process. However, for some of you there is hope if you can only broach the subject with your elders, and get them to listen.
So, just how do we say, "Um, Dad, you're not looking so good. Have you made out your will?" That's kind of what it feels like if we, the adult children, have to bring the subject up. Yet sometimes we must do just that. Sometimes our elders need a nudge to get the legal work done.
One step I recommend to people is to say conversationally to one's elders, "I read about a guy about my age who was in a car accident and his family is scrambling. He's on life support and they don't know what to do. I don't want my family in that situation, so I'm seeing an estate attorney next week to get a Power Of Attorney, a will and a health directive written up. This is going to bug me until I do it."
Make sure you've made an appointment with an attorney before you bring it up. Don't try to fudge. You aren't lying about reading about someone in that condition. Who hasn't read such a story? But an appointment must be made so with an estate attorney so you are telling the truth.
When your parents hear you talking about making such a move, it's not at all a stretch to think that they may say, "Who are you seeing? We need to do that." They may even ask if you will go along with them when they do the work.
Okay, that's a best case scenario. Maybe they won't follow your lead. Don't push it. Get your own paper work done, since you should anyway. We all should. Then bring the subject up again when you give your parents a copy of your living will.
A health directive, or living will, is not something you put in a drawer. If medical people and family members don't know you have one, then it won't help if they have to make a quick decision. A copy should be given to each of your loved ones who may have to make a decision about your life or treatment. A copy also needs to be in your medical files. So, this is a natural move.
If Mom and Dad still don't budge? If they still drag their feet and say they don't want to spend the money or take the time, or jinx themselves or some other lame excuse?
I can suggest two books, since I've read them, though there are many others available. One is an exceptionally sensitive view of writing a will that reflects your true legacy called, "Creating the Good Will: The Most Comprehensive Guide to Both the Financial and Emotional Sides of Passing on Your Legacy," by attorney Elizabeth Arnold.
The other is, "The Parent Care Conversation," by Dan Taylor. I've reviewed both books and they are excellent guides to finding ways to approaching your parents about end-of-life legal work and finding out what their wishes are. Both books are available on Amazon.com and through book stores.
Will any of these moves guarantee and swift trip to an estate attorney? Not always. If you get nowhere, you may want to mention your quest to a good friend of your parents or a respected older relative and let them take a crack at breaking down your parents' denial of death.
It's a huge culture shift in our country for people to get comfortable talking about death, but I do think we are slowly changing for the better. The hospice movement has helped. People are learning they have more choices than they thought if they get real about the fact that they will, one day, die - just like everyone else.
Good luck with your parents. If they are beyond the point where they can or will get legal work done, you will have a struggle. You may have to involve attorneys so you can get guardian rights. Don't put your kids in this position when it's your turn. Get the legal work done so you can live in peace.