It’s time to talk about something unpleasant

It’s time to talk about something unpleasant

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By Fran Parker / Mesa County Health Department

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A month ago, I was intrigued when my friend Sherry told me about this year’s selection for the One Book, One Mesa County program. Mesa County Libraries’ choice for this year’s literary event was Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, by New Yorker cartoonist, illustrator and author Roz Chast. It covers a familiar topic for Sherry and me: aging and dying parents. 

I quickly checked out and started reading the book. It seemed an unusual selection for the community reading event, not because of the topic, but because of the book’s format. In her memoir, Chast uses cartoons, photos and some text to tell the story of her relationship with her parents in their last years of their lives. All three of them were in serious denial about death and this made a typically stressful period of life even more challenging.

There were shades of the familiar in the book, but I’m happy that Roz Chast’s story is not my story. If anything, reading the book reinforced my belief, and profound sense of gratitude about my good fortune in having parents who did prepare for getting old and dying.

I’m going to tell you what they did that has made my life so much easier. I’m not sharing this because I expect you to try to convince your parents to do the same. If they haven’t done these things on their own, it is unlikely they will do so. Instead, I’m hoping those who read this will consider giving their own children the precious gifts I received from my parents.

My parents:

  • Prepared the necessary paperwork, so I would be able to manage their financial affairs when the time came. They both had durable powers of attorney that named their spouse, then me, and then my brother as a personal representative.
  • Thought about and decided what kind of end-of-life care they would like, and spelled it out with a living will and written do-not-resuscitate orders. Once again, I was designated to make healthcare decisions for the surviving spouse when he or she could no longer make decisions.
  • Added my name to their bank accounts and safe deposit box. They told me what was in the box and where the key was located.
  • Purchased prepaid burial policies, planned their memorial services and chose to have their cremains enriched in a wall at the Santa Fe National Cemetery in New Mexico.
  • Made up a list of all of their monthly bills – detailing when and how they were paid, their credit credit card numbers, life insurance policies, retirement accounts and other assets.
  • Left instructions on how to notify the US Air Force and Veteran’s Administration of my father’s death.
  • Downsized, sold their house of 30 years, and moved to a continuing care retirement community.

Not everyone has the money to do all of these things – particularly the move to a retirement community that will accommodate the increasing levels of care that may be needed. Some may be able to afford to live in a continuing care community, but prefer to stay in their own homes for the remainder of their lives. Others may expect family members to take care of them. At some point, however, your needs may exceed what family and friends can provide.

If you have adult children, I encourage you to start having these discussions now. They don’t have to be unpleasant. Let your children know what kind of care you would like and how you would like to be treated at the end of life. 

Five Wishes (http://www.agingwithdignity.org/five-wishes.php), a document for creating a living will, is an excellent resource for beginning this process. This document will let your family and doctors know:

  • Who you want to make health care decisions for you when you can’t make them.
  • The kind of medical treatment you want or don’t want.
  • How comfortable you want to be.
  • How you want people to treat you.
  • What you want your loved ones to know.

Start with a living will and then move on to getting your financial records in order.  Your children will thank you for it.

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Fran Parker is a health promotions specialist at Mesa County Health Department and a regular Healthy Mesa County blogger.

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