What is End of Life Planning?

When the subject of end of life planning comes up, most people immediately think estate planning: wills, trusts and other types of legal documents that detail how property (both financial and tangible) is distributed to heirs in the most tax efficient manner, best suited to each heir, based on their age or other criteria.

Others associate end of life planning with the medical decisions that are necessary to make on behalf of someone who is literally near the end of their life.  Does that person want extraordinary efforts to keep them alive? These directives are clarified in documents where one gives the power of attorney for health care to one or more persons. In that same document, they also make clear what they want in terms of prolonging life, relief from pain, and any other wishes they may have. Your estate planning attorney can also prepare your Advance Health Care Directive. For more information, go to http://www.nhdd.org/public-resources.

When I think of end of life planning, I am focused on how you want to be remembered, what kind of celebration you want, who you want to speak about the difference you made in so many other lives, your sense of humor, how you would never go out without your makeup on, how much you loved your grandchildren, your strength and courage, and so much more.

The third area of planning is rarely discussed, and there has not been much written about it. Likely because it is not a pleasant topic to bring up. Adult children find it hard to bring up this topic with their parents, for fear it sounds like they are not long on this earth. Aging parents don’t bring it up, because it is something they don’t want to think about. Yet it should be discussed, because you have made a difference in your life, and it should be celebrated and recognized at your death.

I learned this firsthand in my regular visits to see my Dad in his later years. As his named Executor, he would bring up the subject with me from time to time, telling me how he wanted the funds distributed, where to find his insurance policies, putting my name on his safe deposit box, etc.

After many visits, we really had exhausted the subject of dealing with the financial assets after his death. So gradually, he began to tell me what kind of service he wanted; that he wanted it on a Saturday morning, early, so no one would have to take time from work, and also not cut into their entire day. I knew his friends, but I asked him who he would want to speak at his service, and was surprised to hear the names of two men I did not know. One spoke about his incredible community service over 50+ years, and how valuable he had been in growing the assets of so many organizations, building endowments that would ensure their sustainability long after he was gone. The other individual spoke about what he had done for his church, both in building their endowment, but also his care of the elderly parishioners.

Once Dad told me who these men were, he told me about the organizations on whose boards he had served: the YMCA, The Visiting Nurses Association, and on and on, the kind of organizations that are essential in every community. On a subsequent visit, he sent me to the basement to look for something, and I found a trove of plaques that had been presented to Dad later in life for his lifetime service. There were eight of these, and I brought them upstairs and asked Dad if I could hang them in the hall. I could tell he was so pleased that he children would now know all he had done for others, and that just scratched the surface.

That is when it really hit me: everyone touches many lives in a positive way over their lifetime, where a kind word, or a thoughtful gesture brightens a day that has been difficult. More than that, we also improve the lives of people we work with, or mentor, our own children in raising them with important values. All of these encounters, whether just brief moments of interaction or long term associations, impact the lives of dozens, hundreds, even thousands of individuals, who in turn positively touch other lives. It is a powerful positive force.

And that deserves to be celebrated, to remind us all that, in the end, we recognize the truth of what Winston Churchill said: “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.”