• If preserving your loved one’s dignity as well as their estate is part of the family fortune you and your family care about saving;
  • If their health and protecting their right to make health care decisions is important;
  • If preserving their lifestyle in the face of a crisis is important;
  • If avoiding airing their “dirty laundry” is important;
  • If you want to avoid the lawyers, going to court, going through conservatorship proceedings is important;
    then it is particularly important that you make sure that your aging loved one’s advance planning documents are in order.

However, have you tried to get your elderly parent(s) to discuss their legal documents? A lot of the time you get “Don\’t worry, I\’m leaving everything to you” – or you can\’t get them to talk at all! Sound familiar?

Why is this so common? Probably because, when approaching aging parents about their legal documents, most people start by asking about their Will. Since a Will determines how assets will be passed along at death, when you start there – especially with members of the Victorian/Depression-Era Generation – they are likely to misinterpret your concern and think you\’re only interested in their money. Since for many of them discussing money or death is difficult or taboo – rather than willingly discuss, many will simply shut down.

So a more productive way to start the conversation and show your genuine concern – is to begin with the non-financial documents that affects them while they\’re alive – their health care documents. It shows you care about them. The name of these documents differ from state to state, but in New York State, they\’re called a Living Will and a Health Care Proxy – or collectively, Advance Directives. Advance Directives allow people to plan now what health care they would want while they\’re still alive but unable to communicate their wishes themselves. (You can download these documents free of charge for every state at Caring Connections at www.caringinfo.org/stateaddownload.)

So . . . given the sensitivity, how do you discuss advance planning documents?

One way to start is by using your own planning to open a dialog. For example: “I read an article about advance planning and it gave me a lot to think about. Hopefully you have these documents. How did you decide what to do?”

Remember the Terri Schiavo case a few years ago? If anything good came from that case, it’s that there are very few people who haven’t seen or heard what can happen if they don’t have a Living Will or Health Care Proxy. Therefore, you might say: “Remember Terri Schiavo? Do you have a Living Will and Health Care Proxy. Think of what can happen if you don’t. I know you don’t want to put us all through that.”

Or you might say: “We want to make sure you have the power and control over your life if you’re not able to speak for yourself.”

Or: “Don’t think of it as “losing control” – in reality, you’re taking control. If you don’t do this, and something happens, not only won’t you have control, but neither will your children or anyone else who knows and loves you.”

Or “I (we siblings) know you want to lessen our burden by making sure everyone knows what you want. But it’s important that you don’t just tell us but that you also put it in writing.“

Or “A Will is what you’ll leave after your death – and we appreciate whatever you choose to do – but let’s discuss what you want and how to best take care of you while you’re alive.

If they absolutely refuse to fill out advance planning documents – don’t argue. Instead say something like “Ok – I respect that. However, in the absence of clear instructions, the doctors will have to protect themselves and the hospital. That probably means keeping you alive on life support. Therefore, we need to make sure you’re set up financially so that you have decent care for as long as you’re alive. It may also mean that we have to go to court and spend thousands of dollars to be able to make your health care decisions. Don’t you think it would be better for you if you made your decisions now so you are in control of these decisions?”

In addition, if your aging loved one tells you that they are appointing you as their Agent gently insist they discuss all of their decisions with you in detail. Otherwise, at one of the most difficult and emotional times of your life, you will be left having to make the decisions in a vacuum.

Speaking of discussing their decisions . . . If preserving family relationships after they are gone is important to your aging loved one, firmly request that they let your siblings know what they want, too. Life and death decisions are heart-wrenching enough without battling with your siblings – and potentially destroying relationships forever.

A final word to the wise . . . If, after everything you say, your parents still won’t sign these documents and/or do their own financial planning – then I strongly recommend that you make your own financial arrangements so can afford to take care of them.

Most of us don’t want to think about what can happen if our loved one has a serious medical issue. We don’t want to think about loved ones being sick, let alone having to make life-altering decisions. However, given my mother’s current condition, I am constantly reminded how fortunate the entire family is that she took care of all of her quality-of-life-protecting documents while she was still able to do so. As her agent for her Health Care Proxy and Power of Attorney, her advanced planning allows me to make sure she gets the best care possible – and can pay for it! And because she also discussed her wishes with my sisters, I have their support when I have to make difficult decisions. As hard as it may be, it is so worth it for the entire family.

© Copyright AgeWiseLiving™ 2009 You can find information about how to talk with your aging loved ones in “The Ultimate Caregiver’s Survival Guide”, the step-by-step blueprint to resolving your eldercare issues by choice, not crisis by going to www.AgeWiseLiving.com. While there, sign up for Barbara’s free monthly newsletter. You can also contact Barbara by calling toll-free (877) AGE-WISE. Barbara E. Friesner is the country’s leading Generational Coach and expert on issues affecting seniors and their families. She is an adjunct professor at Cornell University and host of Age Wise Living radio show on VoiceAmerica.com.

Barbara Friesner is the country's leading Generational Coach and an expert on issues affecting Seniors and their families. She has been interviewed for Advising Boomers magazine, featured on NY1 TV's Focus on Seniors and Coping with Caregiving on wsRadio. She has also been quoted in newspapers and magazines across the country and her articles have been published in the CAPSule, the Children of Aging Parent's newsletter.