Addressing the subject no one wants to talk about

So the question is … what are some practical actions and preparations a senior and their family can take to lessen the impact when death occurs?

It was estimated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that at least 1.7 million Americans age 65 and older would die in 2008, and an equal or larger number in the coming years.

Of those, many will be the last surviving parent, and sadly, a large percentage will depart without a plan or even a simple will. No family meetings. No wishes expressed. No final loving words to share.

If only half of these older Americans leave behind three children (many will leave more), almost 3 million adults will be without parents in the United States this coming year.

As Jo Myers, author of Good to Go: The ABC’s of Death and Dying observes: “Some of these aging offspring already suffer strained sibling relationships left over from childhood. So, potentially, a large number of grown-up baby boomers will act like children when their parents are not around to provide supervision.”

How sad! And yet … how avoidable.

So the question is … what are some practical actions and preparations a senior and their family can take to lessen the impact when death occurs? How can we more adequately prepare for the inevitable challenges a family will face … before … during … and after … the death of a parent?

The reality today is that many seniors display avoidance behavior rather than pre-plan for their death. They often make statements like, “My kids can take care of things after I’m gone.”

Unfortunately, they don’t realize that their lack of planning is often a recipe for the breakup of their survivors. And it’s not just the financial and physical aspects of their absence, but the emotional and relational aspects as well.

Which leads me to the situation that confronts many families today … a lack of communication. Sadly, this is often due to a strained relationship, which may have occurred many years before, but has never been resolved. I have been increasingly confronted with stories of families that are torn apart by parent-child or sibling conflict, and an obstinate unwillingness to forgive. Unfortunately, unless there is an effort to “heal” that relationship, the conflict only fuels further alienation and division in the family, especially after a parent dies. I can’t stress strongly enough the importance of resolving these issues before death takes that opportunity away.

Another important consideration that seniors and their families need to address is the preparation of a will. Even if there are few assets, at least a simple Last Will and Testament will provide a suitable “closure”, and spare the family unnecessary challenges. Today, with the availability of very affordable forms of will preparation, there really is no excuse for not having one. But don’t procrastinate. Even if the senior is reluctant, someone in the family needs to take the lead and insist that a meeting with the parent(s) to discuss this issue take place ASAP.

Let me add one final consideration that a senior and their family needs to address “before” they face the reality of death … the completion of an “advance directive” document that names a substitute decision maker, and identifies desired medical treatments. Although end-of-life planning includes a number of considerations (i.e., a will or trust, a durable power of attorney, funeral and burial plans), an advance directive is a key element in being well prepared.

For my wife and I, we have discovered a wonderful resource known as the Five Wishes. With this document, several of the previously mentioned actions can be rolled into one format … a living will, advanced directives, and specific words and sentiments that the senior wants their loved ones to know.  For more information regarding the Five Wishes document contact Aging with Dignity at 888-594-7437, or go to their website at It’s a great resource.

As you can imagine, all of these considerations I’ve mentioned in this column are issues that require the senior and their family to confront a subject that most people want to avoid … death.

And that’s not easy. In fact, it’s quite uncomfortable for most people to address. But address it we must if we’re going to be prudent and responsible adults.