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How to bring up end-of-life issues in a considerate and sensitive way

Our parents were there when we learned how to walk, how to ride a bike, and when we graduated. For most of us, they’re pillars that helped us become who we are today and the ones we could count on when things went wrong. Seeing the roles reversed and them becoming more and more fragile can be disconcerting. And yet, death is a part of life, and there comes a time when you have to do the wise thing and bring up end-of-life issues.

Doing that is easier said than done. According to a 2018 study, 92% of Americans believe that it’s essential to talk about end-of-life care with their parents, but only 32% have had that conversation. If you’re in the same situation, your hesitance is completely understandable. However, postponing “the talk” can have unpleasant repercussions for the entire family in the long run. And, you might discover that bringing up the subject isn’t as awkward as you imagined!

Finding the right time

One of the biggest misconceptions about discussing end-up-life issues is that you should wait until your parent or grandparent is old enough, or becomes critically ill. However, that’s not the wisest timing, and it can even make you come across as insensitive. On the one hand, elders who are struggling with a serious health issue can be blinded by fear, and they may not be able to make the most rational decisions. On the other hand, bringing up the topic at such a sensitive time could make seniors feel like a burden, and you don’t want that either.

Even though it can feel uncomfortable, you should discuss end-of-life matters sooner rather than later. In an ideal world, you’d have all the time in the world to do this, and the transition from good health to death would take months, or even years, allowing you to prepare. In reality, these things can happen very quickly and, when they do, you’ll want to be prepared. While the idea that you will one day lose your loved ones is never pleasant, knowing that you planned for it and that their desires will be respected after their passing can bring a bit of empowerment and not add crippling uncertainty to this already painful process.

What approach should you have?

Most people assume that their aging parents and grandparents would feel offended if they brought up end-of-life issues. In reality, seniors are well aware of their age, have some plans, and would like to discuss these issues further with a professional or with their families. So, if you make the courage to ask them, you might be surprised to discover that not only do they not mind but that they’ve been thinking about it too. 

The difference in attitude, however, comes from the way you approach the topic. Of course, every person is different, and if there’s a lot of openness and communication in your family, you could even sit them down and ask directly. If you’re not sure how they’d take it, it’s always a good idea to start the conversation from an anecdote and let them take it from there. For example, you can bring up a movie where the child had to decide whether to take their parents off life support or the story of a celebrity who made a diamond from grandmother’s ashes after she passed away. Your parents will pick up the cue and share some of their concerns and desires after their passing. 

You know your parents, so use the tone you believe they would be most comfortable with. You can even add some humor to the situation, but remember to stay polite and treat them with love and respect. Don’t be patronizing, and don’t criticize them for not having their affairs in order yet. Although they expect these matters to be brought up sooner or later, it’s normal for seniors to feel scared and overwhelmed by all the legal and financial procedures they need to follow. Many seniors have never even interacted with an attorney before. If you believe this would help, you can also ask your parent’s caretaker or nursing home representative to join the conversation and suggest some advice. 

Whenever possible, include more family members in the conversation, especially your siblings. In families with more than one successor, arranging end-of-life matters behind someone’s back can cause hurt feelings, conflicts, uncertainty, and even legal battles after the parents’ passing. Talking about these things with your siblings can make the process more comfortable, more transparent, and you won’t risk any misunderstandings later on.

Points to discuss

Depending on your parent’s age and health status, there are several points that you should address. You don’t want to bring them all up at once, because many of them take time to research and understand. To make the process less overwhelming, start with more personal, casual matters, and then move on to the complex legal and administrative stuff.

How they would like to be celebrated. Is there a unique way that they would like to be remembered? Here you can discuss their funeral pet peeves, their favorite songs, or maybe even suggest a non-profit to donate to after their passing.

End of life care. Would they rather be looked after in a caregiving facility, at home, or would they like to move in with a loved one?

Finding an attorney. Do they already have someone in mind, or do they need help finding an expert in succession law?

Their will. Are they comfortable drafting their own will, or do they have complicated estates and need professional help?

Special instructions for maintaining estates and businesses. If your parents own many properties or businesses, ask them how they would like to be handled after their passing.

If your parents aren’t ready to contact an attorney yet or commence legal proceedings, simply writing down their desires is a great start. You’ve already made the hardest step, and planning will get easier from here.