You know that talking with your loved ones about end-of-life care is important — but have you actually done it? According to a survey of Californians by the California HealthCare Foundation, 82 percent of people say it’s important to put their wishes in writing, but only 23 percent have actually done it.
It’s never easy to discuss death and dying, especially if the people you’re talking to are your parents. But advanced care planning is critical so you have a shared understanding of what matters most to you and your loved ones.
So where do you start? Here are three questions you should ask your parents to get the ball rolling, along with strategies for how to make advanced care planning a little more comfortable for everyone involved.
Question: What’s most important to you as you think about how you want to live at the end of your life?
This is a broad question aimed at getting your parents to start thinking about what they value most. What matters to them at the end of life? Do they care about being in the hospital with excellent nursing care? Is it most important that they’re able to say goodbye to the ones they love? Do they want to be able to recognize their children?
You can break the ice by saying something like: “If you ever got sick, I would be afraid of not knowing the kind of care you would like. Could we talk about this now? I’d feel better if we did.”
It’s important that your parents are able to communicate what matters to them so that you and your family can make decisions about what’s worth pursuing treatment for — and what isn’t. Do they want to receive medical care indefinitely, no matter how uncomfortable treatments are? Or is quality of life more important than quantity?
If they are unsure about the medical care they want, encourage them to talk to their doctor.
Ultimately, your parents should each create a living will, which is a written, legal document that spells out medical treatments they would and would not want to be used to keep them alive, as well as other decisions such as pain management or organ donation.
Question: Who do you want (or not want) to be involved in your care?
Once your parents have a living will, it’s important that they also appoint someone to be their health care power of attorney. The health care power of attorney is the person who will advocate on the range of medical treatments they set out in the living will if they’re not able to.
You can start the conversation by saying something like: “I want someone designated to make my decisions for me in an emergency, so I’m getting my paperwork together. I would feel so much better if you did the same.”
Because the health care agent makes decisions only when your parent can’t communicate on their own, it’s important that the health care proxy is comfortable carrying out the directions your parents have given, regardless of personal feelings or influence from family and friends.
Question: Do you have any particular concerns that you want to talk about?
From personal finances to property to relationships, there’s probably a lot about your parents that you don’t know. What do they need to do to make sure their finances are in order? Is there a family member they want to make sure is taken care of when they’re gone? Maybe there is an important milestone they’d like to be around for, such as the birth of a grandchild or an 80th birthday?
End-of-life discussions can be difficult, and sometimes just having someone to talk to is a big help. Use this time to listen for the wants and needs your loved one expresses, and make clear that what they are sharing with you is important.
By planning ahead, you can avoid unnecessary suffering and relieve your family of decision-making burdens during moments of crisis or grief.
It may be a difficult conversation to have, but as your parents get older, you will need to talk to them about their wishes and preferences for the future. For help getting started, download Getting Your Affairs in Order: A Guide to Advance Care Planning and Emergency Preparedness.