My Life Conversations: Taking the First Steps

Our continuing story checks in with Tom who is attempting to help his parents get their End-of-Life matters in order. He’s had the initial conversations with both his mom and dad, but getting them to take the next step and actually start planning is challenging to say the least.
The past two weeks I’ve talked about how I laid the groundwork with my aging mother and father. This week I want to share the steps I took to start and continue the conversation with both of them. Neither wanted to plan for their final days. It took a little psychology, a little patience and a lot of persistence to convince them to take action.

The first thing you should know is starting the End-of-Life conversation takes time. It rarely happens in one try. There will be starts and stops. You have to be patient because it can be frustrating. You have to keep trying. Spend some time trying to understand your parents. You may be surprised what you find out.

One helpful exercise is to think about what inspires your parents to act.

Do they respond to fear?
My dad falls into this category. Like a lot of people, my Dad is driven by fear of what could happen. If this is a strong motivation for your parent, use it gently. Share stories of people who did not make a plan and the unfortunate consequences they experienced. There are plenty of those stories. You probably have friends who will share their stories with your parents if you ask them.

Do they respond to a sense of responsibility?
My Dad also falls into this category. If you have a parent who always wants to be prepared, start by talking about putting an End-of-Life plan together for yourself. This is what finally worked for me. I said, “Hey Dad, I just read about this young guy whose family is fighting over whether he should be kept alive on life support. I don’t want to put my daughter through that so I’m meeting with an estate attorney to have all the paperwork drawn up.”

If your parent is like my Dad, it’s possible they may perk up when they hear you are doing it for your kids. If you’re lucky, they may even respond like my Dad did by asking, “Maybe we can go together?” But even if your parents don’t go for it, meet with the estate attorney anyway and give your parents the information you learned. Chances are your responsible Dad or Mom may take action. And by doing it yourself, you’ve instantly made the subject open for discussion.

Do your parents just want you to listen to them first?
Adult kids who try to force a plan of action before asking some basic questions are almost certainly going to get resistance. Remember your parents are the people who raised you so they are used to being in control. So let them. Communicate to your parents that you know this is about them. The choice is theirs; you are just trying to help.

Making headway with my Mom was through listening. If I could give any advice it is to stop talking and just listen. Ask your parent, “When you think about getting old, what worries you the most? What is your ideal vision of your future? This is your retirement you’ve worked so hard for, what do you want to get out of it?” Questions like these are conversation starters and could lead to your parent taking some first steps.

Suggest books and resources
Both of my parents are avid readers so I suggested a few books on the subject. You may find your Mom or Dad do not like the pressure of being confronted directly, but they will read about it in their own time. There are many great books available; here are a few suggested ones:

Creating the Good Will,” by Elizabeth Arnold – The author helped guide families through the End-of-Life process. She says many families have more than just objects and assets that they want to pass down; they also have an oral history and a set of values that they may want to preserve.

The Parent Care Conversation,” by Dan Taylor – This book includes tactical information about making specific plans for how your parent wants to be cared for as they age. The book also goes into the legal documents you will need to ensure their wishes are met.

The Internet also has a vast array of articles and stories on every topic related to End of Life planning. If your parents are online, suggest they search on end-of-life plans and planning. In the end, don’t wait to start the conversation.

Do it while your parents are in good health, it will be a much less painful process for everyone involved. I know for certain one reason my Dad was more receptive to taking action was because he was not sick. To date, my Mom has still not made a plan, but I am not giving up on her.

If you are just starting the conversation with your parent, try to find a casual opportunity to break the ice and don’t let the ice freeze up again until a plan is made. Because it will probably take a lot of time for the ice to fully thaw. And in my experience with my mother, it is a much harder subject to talk about after a parent is ill.

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