May 11, 2021

How to Begin the Final Wishes Conversation

Adult children senior conversation

It can be easy to become tongue-tied when end-of-life talk surfaces at the family dinner table. You’ll stand a better chance for a productive outcome by being prepared.

Following, from Dr. Julie Masters, chair of the Department of Gerontology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, are tips for getting the conversation started (adapted from “Having the Talk of a Lifetime” (2014); Funeral and Memorial Information Council):

  • Don’t stress. Choose a neutral setting and stay calm when having important end-of-life conversations. Keeping the talk on an even keel will help accomplish more.
  • Have a conversation with someone close to you. Share sensitive topics with close family or friends. Choose someone you trust to talk with or, if you’re helping a senior, make sure they are speaking to someone close to them.
  • Listen and keep an open mind. Certain topics could generate drastic reactions. Always listen with an open mind and don’t be offended by what you hear.
  • Move on if it’s uncomfortable. Unless there is a time constraint, move on to another topic if the conversation is uncomfortable. It may be best to return to a conversation that’s causing distress. Some discussions, such as “Who do you want to care for you if you can’t care for yourself,” can cause angst. Before a crisis happens, tread carefully and try to get the answers you need.
  • Consider using photos and heirlooms as conversation starters. Family heirlooms make good door openers to sensitive conversations. “That’s so nice you want to leave your garnet pin to your granddaughter. What are other things you would like at the end of your life?”
  • Express what you would like to have at your own funeral or memorial service. Sensitive conversations can be a two-way street. Tell your loved one what your own wishes are, which could help initiate the conversation with him or her about what they would like.

“At some point, adult children need to understand they should be the ones making the decisions,” Masters said. “One can’t stay in a child’s role. You have to be the adult in the room and make a decision that is in the best interest and safety of a loved one. That requires a willingness to let go of the old self in favor of the new self. For some people, that’s very difficult. It’s hard to let go. Adult children may need to mature into a new role – keeper of their parents.”

Remember, discussions should be about how to live to the very end of our lives not just how to die.

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