Having “the talk” with your parents

People are living longer. While medical technology can keep our bodies mechanically working longer than ever, the later parts of life are often accompanied by dimensia, Alzheimer’s or other memory issues.

As health declines, there is a need for caregivers to understand their loved one’s health care wishes. The lack of clear instructions can lead to family fights, anxiety and feelings of guilt. Most of us dread this topic as much as we did “the talk” when we were teenagers. But, like that discussion, it is important to have this talk. (Hey, enjoy the opportunity to return the experience!) How can you start the conversation with your loved ones?

Next time you stop over to see Mom, bring up an article you read and start an unwanted but necessary discussion. You could also talk about someone you know who is facing a healthcare crisis in the family or a compelling case in the media. Ask questions to learn what Mom would want in similar circumstances. Does Mom fear that she will be given care and treatments she doesn’t want? Does she fear she won’t get enough care because no one is available to provide daily assistance or her insurance and financial resources are limited? Does she have explicit instructions or just general guidelines for her caregivers?

What is her tolerance for pain? If she had the choice between maximum pain relief that made her sleep or to tolerate some pain but stay awake and alert to visit with family and friends, which would she prefer? If she had a fatal car accident, and there was nothing the doctors could do, would she want to be taken off life support right away or kept on machines until out of town immediately family could visit and say good bye?

Exploring some issues faced by other family members friends or people in the media can reveal a lot about her needs and values, giving you the insight you’ll need to make decisions in the most challenging circumstances. After you have the discussion, encourage your Mother to memorialize her instructions in a health care proxy and living will so her loved ones can carry out her wishes. These documents are usually only a few hundred dollars and are preventative medicine against the thousands of dollars that are paid in legal proceedings when the documents are not in place and courts have to get involved.