How to Talk with Your Loved Ones about End of Life Choices

by Char Brooks, J.D.

Let’s face it.  Telling someone you love that you know they aren’t doing well is awkward.  Anticipating an unexpected event like your loved one suddenly becoming seriously ill and talking about it when they are healthy is even more awkward.

End of life choices are difficult concepts to think about, let alone discuss.

The paradox is that the best time to talk about what to do if one of our loved ones is ill is before it happens for three reasons:

  • You and your loved one are more clear headed when you are not in the middle of a crisis

  • You and your loved ones have more time to discuss this over time

  • You and your loved ones can get outside support from healthcare providers, family friends, and clergy among others if you so desire

If your loved one is already failing, the sooner you have this conversation the more relieved you may feel.  It is surprising how this type of conversation, though awkward, can often lead to peace of mind for everyone concerned, including your loved one

Here are some general ideas to get the ball rolling on discussing estate planning with your loved ones:

  • Start with getting your own estate plan in order.  Consider your own wishes in terms of estate planning and advance directives.   By telling your loved one what you’re doing, you are opening the line of communication and showing them how it’s done.  As you get your own affairs in order, your loved one may actually appreciate your courage as well as your help in getting them started with their own estate planning.

  • Talk about the news.  There is a story by Dan Rather on 60 minutes where doctor’s were aggressively treating a 72-year-old man who had no chance of surviving.  The man had no living will expressing his wishes and could not speak for himself.  The doctors insisted they have no choice but to continue to treat him.   This would be a good way to open the conversation

  • Go for a walk or a drive.  There are generally less distractions when you are out  and bring the subject up during that time.

So, once you’ve got an idea of how to get started on talking about this,  what happens next?

How do you “have the conversation”?.

First, please understand that there is no “right way” to do this.  Some people are easy to talk with and others aren’t.  It’s possible your loved one won’t want to talk about it the first time you raise it, or for that matter, at any time.  But, you can invite them to consider what they want done at the end of their life by using some of the following scenarios as guidelines.

By all means, adapt these suggestions to your own family dynamics and riff off these scripts taken from www.agingwithdignity.org

  • “I know you well enough to know you have an opinion about almost everything.  I don’t even want to ask you this but I’d rather than ask you now than guess later.  If something were to happen to you and you were unable to tell me what you wanted, what would you want me to do if you were seriously ill and couldn’t talk?”

  • “You look great and I hope you live to be 100!   But, in case you get sick or something suddenly happens, I want to do exactly what you’d want me to do.  Have you done any estate planning?”

  • “Could you do me a favor?  I’ve been putting off talking to you about this for a while and this feels really awkward.  We don’t have to talk about it now but could we have a conversation about how I can help you if at some point you can’t ask for what you need?”

Here’s the good news.  Your loved one most likely doesn’t want to burden you with their decisions.  Their estate plan may already be in tact and they forgot to tell you.  You just won’t know until you ask. They may have been waiting for someone to bring this up because they felt too awkward to say something themselves.

It just may be easier than you think.

Please call Elder Law of Michigan at 1-800-347-5297 for more information on how to help your loved one put their wishes into action through estate planning and advance directives.

Char Brooks is a Hotline Attorney at Elder Law of Michigan and a regular contributor to this blog

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