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The Single Most Important Discussion You Can Have

Depressing as hell, but we need to talk to our parents about their end-of-life wishes (and to our kids about ours)

By Suzanne Gerber

A number of years ago, my father gave me some pretty great advice, which I’ve been trying my darnedest to follow. “Don’t get old, Sue,” he said. “It sucks!”

Dad would’ve turned 90 last month, and until he got blindsided by Alzheimer’s, he had a very active, engaged life: six decades of very competitive tennis and bridge, travel, email-correspondences and watching sports on TV. But as it does, the disease swallowed him up, and as his abilities declined, my role in parental decision-making stepped up.

Our family was unique in many ways, good and bad, but I think we were also a typical American family in more key ways, which is why our story is worth sharing. My mother managed everything in the home — the only “cooking” my father did was grilling, and the only “housework” was making the messes that needed to be cleaned.

He was the primary breadwinner, though, and made all the major purchases and handled all the bills, insurance and investments. And like so many of his peers who grew up during the Great Depression, he was very conservative about money, although he was also very generous by nature. As a lifelong IBMer, he had a lot of company stock and enjoyed the many benefits that came with 30 years of service for a blue-chip corporation in its heyday.

In hindsight, I see clearly that I should have gotten more involved with helping manage their affairs much sooner. But some combination of respect, denial and being too busy conspired to prevent it. When my father died three years ago, a series of startling revelations came to light, and I’ve been scrambling to “take care of business” for my mother ever since.

Having the Difficult Conversations

Among the many several shocking discoveries was that my very cautious and strategic father didn’t carry life insurance (well, a $5,000 plan from IBM, which basically covered the burial). Nor had he expressed any preferences for said funeral, and they hadn’t even purchased a plot.

Also, when he retired, he chose the “higher pension while alive” option rather than a lower amount that would have lasted my mother’s lifetime. The net loss of income to her (from the lost pension, his veteran benefits and his SSI) was about two-thirds. Most troubling of all were the investments, which thanks to the double whammy of the recession and an unethical broker would have evaporated had I not intervened when I did.

Fortunately, our family has an open, transparent way of interacting, so I’ve been able to take appropriate action. But a lot of families aren’t so open. Even the ones who are, tend to avoid dealing with these kinds of things. And because death is the one thing no one wants to think about — let alone talk about — we’re doing ourselves and our parents a grave disservice by assuming all is in order and not discussing it directly.

As we’ve written about often on this site, most recently ‘The Conversation' You Need to Have This Holiday Season, this is one of the most important things we can do, and we need to prioritize it. The Conversation Project (the subject of that story) is a great place to begin. As it says on its home page: “60 percent of people say that making sure their family is not burdened by tough decisions is ‘extremely important’” yet “56 percent have not communicated their end-of-life wishes.”


Two other disturbing facts it cites: “70 percent of people say they prefer to die at home” yet “70 percent die in a hospital, nursing home or long-term care facility,” and “82 percent of people say it’s important to put their wishes in writing” yet “23 percent have actually done it.”

(MORE: How to Plan and Discuss Your End-of-Life Care)

We Cannot Afford to Procrastinate

My mother has recently had some new health challenges, and while I’m knocking wood even as I’m typing this, they’ve cast into sharper relief the need to take our conversations further. So I revisited a wonderful book, The Hard Questions for Adult Children and Their Aging Parents, by the wise and compassionate Susan Piver. I cannot recommend this book strongly enough. I’ve underscored and highlighted so much of it that it looks like a college textbook.

One of the many powerful sentences in her introduction illuminates the real value of the painful, arduous task of having end-of-life discussions with our parents: “Whether our relationship is emotionally healthy or unhealthy, nourishing or unwholesome, reciprocated or unrequited, asking these questions is every child’s opportunity to in some way honor his or her parents for the gift of life given.”

Piver discusses the four qualities needed to handle this project with graceful effectiveness: courage, the willingness to feel, the willingness to relinquish control (ouch) and, the sum of those three, presence. The book opens with introductory sections for the children and the parents, then divides its 100 “hard questions” into four main categories: finances, legal, health care and quality of life, and spirituality.

I’m not a big crier, but re-reading this book now moved me to copious tears. Being proactive and engaging in this most difficult of all discussions can give us the confidence that we are honoring our parents and performing the highest acts of kindness and charity one human can do for another (doing for them what they can’t do for themselves). And taking right action in a timely fashion can give us peace of mind in the future, during those dark days when we’ll need it most.

Suzanne Gerber, former Living & Learning editor for Next Avenue, writes about inspirational topics including health, food, travel, relationships and spirituality. Read More
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