Although it's one of the most important conversations to have, end-of-life planning tends to be avoided until the last possible moment - or until it is too late. It's uncomfortable and difficult to face your own mortality. However, avoiding the conversation can burden your family with undue stress and anguish when you pass.
Besides the financial burden families have, there is also a great emotional toll during the end of a person’s life. Added to these burdens, your grown children and relatives may have differing opinions on what kind of care you would like at the end of your life. End-of-life planning can help avoid these potential arguments.
With the current pandemic, many families know someone who has been sick, hospitalized, or died from COVID-19. Recent reports show over a quarter million of Americans have died from COVID-19. When faced with the uncertainty of the future, more and more people are beginning the conversation about end-of-life planning. In one study, the number of people interested in end-of-life planning increased nearly five times when compared to pre-COVID-19 numbers. (See COVID-19 Should Change How We Talk About Dying.)
End-of-life planning includes more than simply deciding whether or not you want to be cremated or where your funeral will be held. It includes important decisions about who will be in charge of your estate after you die and how your assets will be divided. It also gives you the opportunity to prepare for the worst case scenario before you pass. If you are in a serious medical situation, end-of-life planning prepares you and your family by stating who will make medical decisions for you and what kind of treatment you want.
The first step to end-of-life planning is beginning the conversation at home with your family. Early conversations with your family give you the opportunity to express your thoughts and feelings clearly. You can decide what type of treatment is right for you and what are your end-of-life wishes. Too many people die in a way they wouldn’t choose, and their family and friends are left feeling bereaved and guilty. These early conversations can help avoid these issues.
Lindy Grief Davidson, Associate Dean at Judy Genshaft Honors College with a PhD in health communication, offers the following tips for starting the discussion:
Frame the conversation around life rather than death. Many important comforts such as music, food and stories are enjoyable through the final moments of life, yet these may be missed if the focus is on dying rather than living.
Initiate conversations by talking about your own wishes for how you would want to live if you were to develop a serious illness or have an accident. This may prompt others to express their similarities and differences.
Create a written record of your conversations. These records can be developed into advance care directives – legal documents that typically require witness signatures or a notary. Checklists of questions to ask and tools for developing these documents are available online through sources like The Conversation Project, Five Wishes and The National Institute on Aging. There are also tools for children, adolescents and young adults with life-limiting illnesses.
If you have documented a health care surrogate, be sure to talk with that person about what you do and do not want. Never assume someone will know how to make decisions for you. It’s unfair to put someone you love in that position.
Remember that people change over time. Think of these conversations as ongoing and revisit the topic on occasion to see if there are new thoughts or wishes that have emerged.
The next step after having the conversation with your family is to make your wishes legally binding. End-of-life planning includes legal documents like a Last Will and Testament, Advance Directives for Health Care, and financial Power of Attorney. A Last Will and Testament states who will be in charge of your estate, how your assets will be divided, and who you want to name as guardian for your minor children. Advance Directives for Health Care lets you name someone to make medical decisions for you when you are not able. It also includes a Living Will so you can die naturally. The financial Power of Attorney gives the person you name the authority to handle your financial matters when you are unable to do so yourself.
It's important that you see an estate planning attorney to create these documents for you. An attorney will be able to guide you through the process and draft documents that not only fit you and your family's needs but also meet all legal requirements. Estate planning documents are not a "one size fits all." You should use caution if you are looking to prepare the documents yourself through an online service. Your documents should be accurate and legally valid so as to save you and your family future heartache.
Although it isn't easy to discuss, it is important. End-of-life planning gives you and your family peace of mind. Start the conversation now. The earlier you plan and discuss these critical matters, the better prepared you will be.