Phyllis Johnson (Phil’s mom and Marcus’ grandmother) passed away on October 17, 2017, at the age of 92. She was a colorful woman—inside and out—known for her red hair and lipstick. Above all, she loved her family and she was the matriarch of 11 grandchildren and 49 great-grandchildren.
We have been responsible for overseeing her care for the past ten years and it has been a joy to have the opportunity to serve her. The primary objective of helping our mother was to do what is best for her. After all, she was there for us our entire lives.
From the time you were a baby, your parents raised you and took care of you. They shouldered the responsibility of making decisions for you when you could not. Sometimes, the roles may be reversed. There might come a time when your parents will be unable to make certain critical health decisions on their own. Fear of the aging process and loss of independence can be difficult for parents to accept. Likewise, it may be challenging for children to approach their parents about how they can assist in meeting their changing needs.
When it comes to parents’ healthcare, the law is very strict about who is able to participate in and decisions related to health care. Most individuals consider information and decisions about their health to be highly sensitive and deserving of the strongest legal protections.
People rarely think about their values regarding end of life decisions until a crisis hits – when decision making is most difficult. Without advance planning, children might not be able to gain access to the information they need…or to make decisions on their parents’ behalf if they become incapacitated. In a worst-case scenario, children may be forced to fight in court for guardianship, a time-consuming and costly process.
Parents can avoid this scenario by working with their children to plan in advance and prepare the appropriate documents prior to a health crisis. Being prepared can also decrease stress and anxiety by giving parents a sense of confidence that their wishes will be taken into account when home-care and health decisions need to be made.
We need to talk….
Many times, broaching the subject of an aging parent needing care is particularly difficult due to family dynamics. It may be necessary to overcome feelings of guilt, anxiety or even anger. It is important to make your aging parent aware that you are there to support them and not to interfere in their life, that their health and safety is your utmost concern. Begin the conversation by saying something like, “You will not need to use these documents for another 5, 10 or 20 years, but we are just planning ahead.”
Three tips to help make this process smoother:
Talk – soon. Start having these conversations sooner rather than later. It takes time to create a plan that will satisfy the needs and expectations of aging parents and also give you the peace of mind that a workable plan is in place. It is better to plan in advance than to plan “on the fly” for the many situations that can develop as parents age.
Talk – often. One or two conversations are rarely enough. You may be tempted to rush through the difficult issues and to talk about everything all at once. It is a better approach to allow the planning process to evolve. Have multiple conversations over multiple days, weeks and months. This can reduce tension and keep parents from becoming overwhelmed and tuning out.
Talk – about everything. Do some research before having any conversations. Explore a range of options. Think outside the box. Then talk about what currently is in place and transition to what your parents envision for the future. As your conversations progress, you can begin to evaluate different plans for helping parents age gracefully. Make a list of the pros and cons for each choice and together determine what is best.
Useful health information to gather initially includes:
- Awareness of any health conditions and desires for future care
- A list of doctors and pharmacy contact information
- Medical records and Medicare and/or Medicaid number and identification card
- Insurance policies
- Trust, will, and estate planning documents
End of life considerations to discuss include with your parents:
- When thinking about the last phase of life, what’s most important to you?
- Who do you want (or not want) to be involved in your care?
- How much do you want to rely on your doctors for decision making?
- What are acceptable and unacceptable medical treatments/care to you?
- What are acceptable or unacceptable places to receive care (home, nursing facility, hospital, hospice facility)?
- Would you like to plan out your funeral or memorial service?
- Do you want to make a list of who will inherit tangible items (such as jewelry, furniture, collections, artwork, items of value, etc.)
Every conversation that you have with your parents will uncover additional thoughts and feelings regarding their wishes. These conversations will allow you to be confident that when the time comes you will be carrying out your loved one’s wishes, not making the decisions for them.
The decline in Phyllis’ health was a difficult journey–especially over the past two years. Her funeral, however, was a celebration of a wonderful life. Thankfully, most decisions had already been made years prior and so our job was simply to execute her plan. She had even requested a casket spray with red roses so that each family member could take one home.
At Phyllis’ graveside, a grandson played his guitar and sang a George Strait song that she had written down in her instructions to her children. The words were “I just want to dance with you.” The service couldn’t have ended on a sweeter note.
Thanks mom for talking about your wishes…