Having the Awkward Conversation

An end-of-life conversation is one in which parents and their adult children (or other decision-makers) discuss the parents’ wishes for healthcare interventions, financial decisions and account management, beneficiary assignment, life insurance, and other final requests prior to passing on. Initiating this conversation is awkward and difficult not only for the obvious reason of talking about death but also in its structural role reversal. Suddenly, adult children are requesting parents to take responsibility for their preparedness instead of parents requesting responsibility of adult children.

Depending on family dynamics, parents might be embarrassed if they need to ask for help. Additionally, parents may even assume potential heirs are attempting to learn the value of a future inheritance.

Getting started can feel like an overwhelming hurdle as it can include inspection of life insurance policies, assignment of beneficiaries, exploration of long-term care options, examination of financial accounts, and execution of legal documents.

The importance of having the conversation and creating a plan can’t be understated. Many non-prepared families end up having forced conversations during a triggering event such as a health crisis. This can easily escalate into an emotional, hurried, stressful, and potentially life-altering decision.

Identify and accept this is an emotional process; recognize not only your emotions but also your parent’s potential emotions so you can positively react to resentment, anger, embarrassment, or denial.

Shift the focus from death, declining health issues, or even inheritance woes to creating a plan in order to take care of a surviving spouse or loved one. The most important task is getting the end-of-life plan done. Alterations can always be made to an existing plan as life endures and wishes or situations change.

If appropriate, involve other family members to lessen the burden; however, be careful to not involve too many decision makers which can add difficulty.

Address the topic of end-of-life planning during a quiet time – not the holidays. Assume there will be multiple conversations including an initial topic introduction, preliminary discussion on actual decisions, follow up discussion on actual decisions, and a possible discussion on revisions. Breaking the topic into multiple discussions can help the task become more manageable.

When a plan is in place, it alleviates some of the burden on the decision-makers because mom and dad’s wishes are in writing. When decisions need to be made, it is easier to fulfill mom or dad’s wishes for them instead of doing something to them.

Practice what you preach – make sure your financial house is in order before breaching the subject with your parents. You might even be able to recommend professionals with which you have good relationships.