When And How to Begin a Conversation about End of Life Planning with Older Parents

One question I hear often when I am speaking with groups of people is “How do I bring up the subject of my parents’ plans for the end of their life?” It is not an easy question, nor is the answer a simple one, as it depends on the willingness of one’s parents to even discuss such issues, and also on the relationship they have with their children.

No one likes to spend time contemplating his or her death. But there are ways to begin a series of conversations that might take place over many months, depending on their willingness to open up.

“Have you and Dad made any arrangements with a funeral home or cemetery? If you die, we want to know what your wishes are, and that you have written this down for us.” That can also lead into a discussion on the relative pros and cons of burial versus cremation, and related costs.

A less direct approach might be to raise it after they have been to a funeral of a good friend.  Parents often let their children know when a friend has passed away, as the children likely know that person well. It is a good opening to ask about the funeral, who spoke, was there a celebration of life afterwards, etc. This can easily lead to the questions of “Have you and Dad thought about what you want?”

If you are in your 40’s, and nothing has yet been said, try to start a conversation…“I know you guys are healthy, but just in case something were to happen that put you in the hospital, we need to know that you have made some arrangements.”

At some point as they age, and you are likely in your 50’s or even your 60’s, you will need more specific information. I think it is easier to address in stages, starting with knowing their medical history, prescriptions and doctors. Past the age of 60, the great majority of people have been given some indication that there could be a problem in the future, due to high blood pressure, cholesterol numbers outside the desired range, and perhaps even diagnosed with diabetes or some other cause for concern which will lead to problems down the road. You can start the conversation by asking if they have this information written down, in case you need to help them at some future point. If you volunteer to help them put this together in one place, they are even more likely to agree to do this, and then you would only need to ask to update this perhaps twice a year.

Talking about financials can be sensitive, and often parents are reluctant to discuss this with their children. Initially you can say, “We don’t need to know who advises you, what your assets are, etc., we just want to know that you have this information, and who to contact, in some document, in case one of us needs to step in to help you.”

This takes on more urgency if they are hospitalized or begin to have signs of early dementia.

Putting these plans in place is a process that takes place over time. In my own personal experience, once someone is diagnosed with a very serious health issue, they first think about updating their estate plans. You want to remind them that they also need to think about the plans that detail how they are honored and remembered when they die.