To state the obvious, midlife can be stressful. Many of us find ourselves not only middle-aged and menopausal but also somewhere between caring for our children and caring for aging parents or other older loved ones. Sometimes, we can get so swept up in the incessant grind of daily life that we overlook the benefit of proactively laying a foundation for future situations. This is particularly true when it comes to having important conversations about end-of-life care and other issues with our older parents or loved ones. 

Consider the following:

  • 2017 study in Health Affairs found that about one in three adults in the United States have some advance directive for end-of-life care. As a result, most people receive care toward the end of life that they would not have chosen had they been proactive and made some advance directives. This results in increased emotional and financial costs. 
  • While 90 percent of people think that speaking with loved ones about end-of-life wishes is critical, only 27 percent have done so, according to a 2018 Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services study. 

Many of us avoid speaking with our aging family members about end-of-life plans because it might be difficult or painful. There’s no doubt that it’s hard. No doubt, ignoring these discussions until someone is incapacitated or ill creates unnecessary havoc in already emotionally charged and stressful situations. 

The good news is that people want to talk about it: 

  • Ninety-five percent of Americans would be willing to discuss their end-of-life wishes, and 53 percent would be relieved to examine them, per a 2018 survey by The Conversation Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to fostering such conversations. 

It’s time to start talking. The Conversation Project emphasizes that these conversations are much better had at the kitchen table than in the intensive care unit. Elizabeth Spilotro, an estate planning attorney in Arizona, couldn’t agree more. “Planning for scenarios of long- and short-term incapacitation as loved ones age can mitigate a lot of stress,” she says. She advises everyone to begin these conversations—yes, plural because it’s bound to be emotional and complicated—as soon as possible. 

Fortunately, resources are available to help people think through how best to approach end-of-life issues. A great place to start is The Conversation Project’s Conversation Starter Guide. The Guide does exactly what it says—it starts the process via a series of questions that motivate everyone to think about what matters to them as they contemplate various end-of-life scenarios. 

Invite siblings or others who want to be involved in the conversation. Keeping things as candid and open as possible from the start will help maintain peace and provide clarity. Suppose there are several people involved in the process. In that case, it might be worth creating an informal document to track everyone’s responsibility and even have everyone sign it as a symbol of commitment and accountability. 

Next, create a central file that houses legal and other documentation. These include but aren’t limited to, documents such as: 

  • Birth, death, and marriage certificates
  • Living wills or advance directives. You can access free advance directive forms by state at AARP
  • Property deeds
  • Insurance policies
  • Financial statements. 
  • Powers of attorney, both medical and financial. According to AARP, an attorney doesn’t need to create a medical Power of Attorney. Still, you might want to consult one for the financial document since money issues always seem complicated. 

In addition to gathering the interested parties and necessary legal documents, addressing more mundane yet personal topics is a good idea. Safety behind the wheel, alternative transportation arrangements, selling property, downsizing, and care arrangements for beloved pets at end-of-life are all situations that could arise. While things like these can be sensitive, transitions will go more smoothly if they are considered proactively. 

Finally, a reminder that in having these conversations, how we approach them matters as much as what we discuss. According to Dr. Regina Koepp at the Center for Mental Health and Aging, listening is the most critical ingredient to help these conversations go smoothly. She encourages people to create an environment of empathy in which everyone feels comfortable expressing themselves honestly. Fear, sadness, and anger may show up, but if we can soften and move through issues with a spirit of care and attention, it will help everyone tremendously. 

While it may seem intimidating, it is transformative once we begin these conversations. Older parents and loved ones will feel understood and respected, and we will feel more at ease whenever the next phase begins. The best outcome is that these conversations have a knack for creating bonds that further augment the love and dignity we all crave, especially as we age.