Some conversations are hard, but incredibly important.
A philosophical Charlie Brown once said, “There’s no problem so large that I can’t run away from it.”
Wrong again, Charlie Brown. Some problems just get bigger the more you run away.
Take, for example, the problem of having the difficult conversations - the intensely difficult conversations – with your aging parents about end-of-life matters:
What do you want to do when you can’t live in the house anymore without help?
What do you prefer as far as your funeral and burial?
Who’s in charge of your finances if you can’t handle them anymore?
Or worse still, imagine your adult children are asking those questions to you!
Recently I spoke to two people whose professions give them a window on these family dramas. Allyson Stanton, owner of Stanton Aging Solutions in Columbia, Maryland, works with clients and families to match elders with independent or assisted living facilities (or nursing homes) that can give them quality care in the best possible living situation. Margit Novack, founder of Moving Solutions, is a pioneer in the field of senior move management and has helped hundreds of elders move their possessions from one home to another, typically smaller, residence.
Avoidance as a Strategy
Stanton sees a lot of Charlie Brown’s avoidance strategy at play in America. “We are very bad at life planning,” she says. “We wait until our parents age or until they hit a particular birthday.” Instead, she says, we need to change our mindsets to “the time Is now, and it has nothing to do with age.” If we wait until a parent begins to decline mentally or have serious health challenges, it may be too late for them to make thoughtful decisions.
A lot of parents say they don’t want to be a burden to the children, Stanton says. What they don’t realize is that by failing to make their wishes known when they can, “they’re going to be a tremendous burden.”
Elders, she adds, need to understand that if they don’t talk about where they want to live, or how to handle the estate, or whether they want to be buried, they’ll have no voice.
Fear can sometimes motivate a reluctant person to action. Stanton cites the case of Terri Schiavo, who fell into a coma at age 26 and whose fate was decided by the courts 15 years later. “If you’re having that conversation, you can always say, ‘If you don’t appoint someone you trust to carry out your wishes, it may be a judge who doesn’t know you deciding your fate. ‘”
Seriously, do you want the Supreme Court to make the call?
Margit Novack has also seen the importance of having that honest discussion with aging loved ones while there is still time. In her book Squint: Re-visioning the Second Half of Life, she points to research showing that 90% of people recognize the importance of having the conversation, but only 30% have actually had it. Having the conversation can be the difference between a “good” death and a difficult one.
Other Hard Conversations
In her move management business, there were other highly emotional issues, often around prized possessions: which to keep, which to give away, and what they signified. “I saw firsthand how difficult it can be to part with items inherited from family members,” she says. “And not just heirlooms; even ordinary items can carry with them a sense of responsibility. These items represent a family’s legacy. Letting go of them feels like betrayal.”
She tells a story on herself, regarding a favorite glass cake plate that belonged to her mother. When it broke, she realized that “if I want my children to know their grandmother, they won’t learn about her from a cake plate. They will come to know her from stories that I share.” Telling that story to clients often made it easier for them to part with objects.
Novack describes other difficult, emotionally-loaded conversations that arise in families. In her book she describes having to draw the line with her grandmother over her barrage of negative comments, as well as having a tense family intervention over her mother-in-law’s dependence on a prescription drug.
(You can hear these stories and more in the podcast interview with Margit Novack that became available today. It also features poetry by Jacqueline Oldham.)
The bottom line, whether it’s your aging relatives or yourself, is this: If you wait, it may be too late. Swallow, take a deep breath, and sit down for a hard but important conversation.