The elephant in the room: the possibility of your disability and the certainty of your death. None of us, myself included, want to talk about these things but we should. If you were hit by a bus tomorrow, would your family know what to do or would it spiral downward into family discord?
I teach Elder Law and always ask my students if they’ve had such a talk with their parents. I’m assured by most that that isn’t in their culture. One girl said her father had died suddenly; the arguments began about the costs of the funeral, turned to blame and ended with who should take care of his aging mother.
“We don’t talk anymore.”
A family talk is worth a bushel of legal documents (and way less expensive). What you talk about is less important than the fact that you are talking taboo. Actually it’s more important for you than for your family. How so?
Folks declining into mental or physical disability have a manic fear of being unable to care of themselves. Rather than talk about the fear, rather than confronting that fear, most families talk baseball, leaving the individual alone in misery. Having once talked elephant, “Dad, what are you most worried about?”
Talking helps overcome the denial of death. We waste a lot of energy looking away, making jokes, “I don’t mind the idea of dying but I don’t want to be there when it happens.” In tuesdays with Morrie, Morrie said that once he really got that he was going to die, once he stopped ignoring it, once he talked about it, his life was so much better. Worth the risk.
It’s hard to start the conversation. In my book with Robert Fleming, A Short and Happy Guide to Elder Law, I recommend you first write a letter to your family and then talk. Or you might want to say “I’ve been thinking about my Living Will and want to make things clear” or “Who wants the Grandfather clock?”
Expect your kids to suddenly remember an important appointment, and, on their way out, assure you that you will live forever. They’re as bad as we are. Sneak up.
So what’s to talk about? Once you start topics bubble. Some hints:
Serious illness. Ventilators, feeding tubes, pain meds. Hospice. (Most wait too long, the last few weeks rather than the last few months, months of unnecessary suffering.) How can your family be sure the doctors aren’t ducking the terminable prognosis (they tend to) or are pursing painful but futile surgery? (There is quite a bit of that). If you leave the hospital will your relatives know what to do? (There are many readmissions because relatives screw up.)
Disability. Who will care for you and where will they get the money? Is everyone in agreement? Avoid hostility: “How could you spend so much taking care of mom?”
Documents. Where are they and what are your passwords, hopefully not all duck.
Heirlooms. Most family fight are not about money, they’re about who gets the Grandfather Clock (don’t worry if you don’t have one, it’s a metaphor).
Clutter. Has the time come to divide or throw out some of the worthless stuff you foolishly bought over the decades?
Driving. What should the family do to prevent you from killing someone? Or do you want to die like your grandfather, sleeping soundly, not like his passengers in the back seat, kicking and screaming?
Burial. How much should be spent? If not an expensive casket, how about a nice pillow? As to your funeral, should Uncle Joe be allowed to talk?
Dollars to donuts, there will be laughs, perhaps a few tears. Memories bubble.
I would be happy to talk to your group concerning family talks.