End-of-Life Planning: Don’t wait until it’s too late to have the difficult discussions

An adult son and his elderly father sit at a table in the kitchen to discuss end-of-life planning. Father looks concerned and perhaps sad.

By Jeannie Finnegan, CDP, Dementia Care Consultant, Author & Guest Speaker

Discussing one’s own death can be difficult for many of us. It’s easy to avoid what can feel like a morbid conversation, and many of us put off such talks, feeling we have plenty of time to figure out what we would want at the end of our lives. However, none of us knows our fate and when the end of our life will be. It may happen in a sudden and traumatic way, or it may be following a lengthy illness. No matter how it happens, it is critical that all of us talk with our loved ones today and make sure they know our wishes for how we want to be cared for while we can still express those wishes.

Without end-of-life planning and putting advance directives in place, we will ultimately have no voice in how our own lives will end. Will we want all life-sustaining measures to be taken? Or do we desire fewer medical interventions? Who will I want to be involved in decisions about my care if I am unable to make those decisions myself? These are just some of the important questions to address well before the time comes.

As we approach the end of our lives, we often become more thoughtful, reflecting on our lives and histories, contemplating what the future might look like for us and our families. We might wonder how in the world to prepare for our own or our loved one’s passing. Here are some end-of-life planning questions to help in these difficult conversations, get affairs in order, and allow us and our loved ones to process the final stage in this life journey.

1.  How can I make sure my family will be taken care of?

Making concrete plans now can help ensure your family’s needs are met and financial concerns are not added to their grief at your passing. This might involve making/amending a will, setting up a trust, and making sure you have assigned Power of Attorney for both medical and financial decisions in the event you are no longer able to make those decisions on your own. It’s also important that your family members know where all important document originals are kept and that copies are provided to them.

2.  Is my will up to date?

A will should be updated whenever there is a change in your medical status, a move to another state, or every 10 years.

3.  What are my wishes for end-of-life medical care?

Though sometimes difficult to discuss, it’s important that your loved ones understand your wishes for end-of-life care.  Will you want life-sustaining measures to be taken, such as a feeding tube or mechanical respiration? Or will you want palliative care (comfort measures) only?  Ideally, your loved ones can hear your wishes directly from you. You should also make your wishes clear in a living will or healthcare proxy and/or advanced directives that will direct your doctors to your preferred medical care if you become incapacitated.

4.  Who will look after my pets when I die?

Many people feel their pets are just like family members, and knowing they will be cared for and loved when we are gone is very important to us. It’s possible to set up a pet trust or register them with a pet organization that can care for them or find new homes for them. Under the law, pets are considered personal property, so it is important to communicate with your family about your wishes and include your pets in your estate plan.

Two essential questions for your aging parents:

1.  Where are your end-of-life documents stored?

When grieving the loss of a parent, not knowing where important papers are kept can add to the burden. It is essential to know where all legal documents and important papers are kept. One idea is to create an “End of Life” file and make sure it is accessible to family members who will need them. This would include providing passwords for any digitally stored documents and the name and phone number of any attorneys or estate planners involved.

2.  Who should be included in your care decisions?

Your parents may have a living will; however, should they become incapacitated, family members may still need to make certain healthcare decisions. To avoid tension or conflict, it is important to find out in advance who your parents would like to be involved in decisions about their care.

Other important questions to ask:

1.  What were your growing-up years like?

Adult children often wait until it’s too late to ask their parents about their own histories.  Learning as much as you can about your parents’ early years can create more closeness, build a stronger bond, and affirm the value of your parents’ lives. Consider recording their answers or typing them.

2.  What are some of your happiest memories?

Talking about the best parts of your parents’ lives helps them pass on their favorite stories and connects you in a deeper way. You can learn more about what they valued in life and what is more important to them. It will also create more precious memories with them before they are gone.

3. What are your wishes for your children and grandchildren?

Ask your parents what their deepest desires are for their children and grandchildren, and what type of legacy they hope to leave. This will be another way to honor their memory when they pass on.

End-of-life planning questions to ask your spouse:

1.  How do you want the kids to remember you?

Thinking about dying and leaving one’s children behind is extremely painful, especially when the children are young, but it can be comforting to know your children can still be connected to you when you’re gone. You might discuss recording your thoughts, writing each of your children a letter, or asking your spouse to commit to a favorite family activity regularly when you’re gone, such as hiking, camping, a particular holiday celebration, etc.

2.  Who will take care of our children if both of us die?

It is vital to have this discussion so that together you can name a guardian for your children. Though we typically feel that no one could raise our children as well as we would, it’s incredibly important to think about our children’s future care and provision should both parents die.

3.  How will we divide our assets?

If you have married later in life or have a blended family, it’s important to decide how you will divide your property and assets, perhaps enlisting the help of an estate planner.

Thought-provoking questions for anyone nearing the end of life:

1.  How do you want to spend the time you have left?

Do you want to travel? Do you have a “bucket list” you’d like to complete? Or do you just want to spend as much time as possible with your loved ones?

2.  Is there anyone you’d like to reconnect with before you die?

Perhaps you are estranged from someone and you’d like to reconnect with them before you die. Perhaps there was a difficult or hurtful relationship with a loved one and you’d like to have closure. Knowing you have done what you can to mend fences or restore a relationship, even at the end of life, can bring comfort.

3.  What would you like to be remembered for?

Is there anything you’d like to put in place for others to remember you after you’re gone? This could be writing your life story, putting together a photo album of your life, or giving to a charity and creating a memorial of the gift.

If you or a loved one are facing the end of life, we can help facilitate difficult family discussions and help you create an end-of-life plan. We can put you in touch with a highly recommended estate planning attorney and other helpful resources. Learn more about our advanced care planning services here. Please feel free to reach out to us at (443) 812-1028, email us at help@stantonagingsolutions.com or use our simple Contact Us form.

For further information and a helpful end-of-life checklist, visit this website.

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