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5 Lessons for When Your Elderly Parent Is Dying

Two authors share their conversation about this tough situation


Much has been written about caring for aging parents, but too little advice is available about what to expect when your parent is dying. Bart Astor, author of Baby Boomer’s Guide to Caring for Aging Parents, and Debra Englander, a personal finance writer and editor, recently talked about the experiences they had when their aging parents were sick and later died, and recorded their insights. They came away with five lessons:

Lesson No. 1: Get the Information You’ll Need If You’ll Have to Move a Parent Fast

Debra: Following a two-month stay in rehab after a fall, my 89-year-old father returned home but declined quickly, dying in less than two weeks. We anticipated some hassles handling the various details of his care and financial matters, but we were caught off-guard by some of the problems we encountered.

Bart: I totally understand and sympathize. We also experienced problems when my parents and in-laws died. In fact, my book addresses some of the problems I’m sure you experienced.

Once we notified Social Security of my father's death, his bank froze his accounts, even though I was a joint account holder.

— Debra Englander

Debra: Here’s one thing that happened. At about noon on a Friday, the social worker at the rehabilitation center called to say that my dad’s insurance would no longer approve his stay and we would need to move him by Monday. The social worker never gave me the discharge information I needed; not even a list of home health networks or home health care agencies. And while I got the 48-hour notice the rehab center is required to give, it came hours before the weekend, so I couldn’t make arrangements for my dad at any other place. We wound up paying out-of-pocket for my father to stay extra days at rehab until I could arrange for care.

Bart: So the first lesson: ‘Know what information you need should you have to move your parent in a hurry.’ Were you able to appeal the insurance decision?

Debra: I did appeal later. But at the time, I was focused on my dad’s imminent release. Also, I didn’t know what to ask the social worker; she should have told me to make a telephone appeal. That might have sped things up. Also, she should have provided me with more information about home care.

Lesson No. 2: Respect Your Parents’ Decisions

Bart: When my stepmother died, we repeatedly asked my father whether he wanted to stay in his home or move to someplace where he could be with other people. He had a live-in nurse’s aide, and we thought he needed more. But we respected that it was his decision. We hadn’t done that with my mother-in-law years before and, instead, made decisions for her. She was miserable the rest of her life. My father finally made the decision to move, and he was much happier, even though he didn’t live long in the assisted living facility.

Debra: Lesson Number Two: ‘Respect that your parents are adults and can make decisions for themselves, even if you don’t agree.’ My father was always included in discussions and made his decisions, like your father did.

Bart: Yes, we should treat our parents with the respect we’ll want when we have to make those decisions for ourselves.

Lesson No. 3: Don’t Immediately Close a Bank Account

Debra: We had some really interesting banking problems after my father died. My father’s rent was automatically deducted from his checking account each month. However, once we notified Social Security of his death, his bank froze both his savings and checking account, even though I was a joint account holder. We received a dunning notice from his landlord, saying that since its automatic deduction failed, we needed to send a bank check along with a penalty fee of $25 to pay the rent. In a panic, I called the bank because I had written several other checks on that account, including two to the IRS. The bank made an exception and forced those checks through. But I didn’t realize that once an account holder is deceased, automatic withdrawals are prohibited.

Bart: The bank should certainly have notified all the account holders that it was freezing the account. So Lesson Number Three: ‘Don’t immediately close a bank account, especially the one in which Social Security deposits are made.’ In addition, check with your bank on its policy regarding checks and withdrawals from a deceased person’s accounts, even when they are held jointly.

Lesson No. 4: Make Sure You Have Access to Your Parent’s Assets

Debra: And don’t forget about all the other assets your parent has. If he has stocks and bonds, for example, cashing or depositing them into an account gets to be very cumbersome. Or if he has a safe deposit box, it gets locked unless you’re also on the account. So Lesson Number Four: ‘Take the time before your parent dies to make sure you have access to all the assets.’

Lesson No. 5: Consider Hospice Care

Bart: You know, although my father didn’t need it, friends of mine have needed hospice care. I know your father had that. Tell us about that.

Debra: Hospice is a dreaded word to most people. However, as I learned, hospice care is extraordinarily helpful to both the patient and the family. After my father’s sudden decline, we met with hospice. Within a day, a hospital bed and other supplies were sent. Nurses came in the middle of the night to administer pain medication. Although we only needed hospice care for a few days, having it gave us incredible peace of mind and gave my father a much-improved quality of life for his last days.

Bart: So Lesson Five: ‘Consider hospice care, especially if your loved one is in severe pain.’ Remember that most home health care aides cannot administer medication, but hospice home healthcare aides can. That can make things so much better for your loved one.

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