How to Get Loved Ones to Do End-of-Life Planning: Step-By-Step

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Certified Care Manager, Aging Life Care Professional, and National Master Guardian Emeritus

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No one plans on getting sick or becoming disabled. One of the hardest things to do in life is to plan for something we don’t want to think about, and hope doesn’t happen. End-of-life is one of those things that will happen to everyone, but few people want to plan for what that means. You may have completed the process of getting your affairs in order by doing your advance directives and advance care planning. The hard part is convincing someone else to do it.

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The good news is since you have already completed your end-of-life planning, you have the credibility to walk someone else through the process. You have also confronted the fears and feelings that thinking about death brings up. Your experience and talking with your loved one about your own end-of-life wishes can give you confidence in convincing a loved one to do their end-of-life planning.

Tips for Starting the Conversation About End-of-Life Planning

If there is one takeaway from these tips, it is that the process of starting this conversation regarding end-of-life planning can take time and patience. When you accept this concept, your chances of success are greater. Remember, putting yourself in your loved one’s shoes when having these conversations can improve your approach.

Be respectful

We are starting with this tip because any further steps will be compromised if you aren’t respectful. Your loved one has the legal and ethical right to make decisions for themselves. Empowering them to make the best decisions is an effective strategy. No one likes to feel as though they don’t have control over their choices.

Talk about your experience by example

One way to begin this conversation is to put it in the context of your personal experience. For example, you might say something like this, “I was concerned about my children and making sure they had a road map of what to do should I be unable to express my wishes at end-of-life.” 

Let your loved one know that you don’t anticipate life-altering events, but you know that life is unpredictable. If you can, give an example of someone you know who had an unexpected illness or accident where having, or not having, advance planning in place affected the family.

Put end-of-life planning in a larger context

Talking about death can be very emotional. Most people would prefer to avoid the topic altogether. One way to talk about the actual end-of-life part is to put it in the larger context of advance planning. End-of-life is one portion of health care and financial proxy designations, a will, estate planning, and so on. 

If you can, also talk about healthcare and living options for the future. Care options include what kind of senior living community your loved one will consider. Take time to educate yourself about different options to speak with some authority about care considerations and costs associated with each one. It is far easier to know what your loved one’s preferences are before you need to decide. Good decisions rarely happen during a crisis.

Talk about how advance planning will help you help your loved one

Without using guilt as a tool, talk about how end-of-life planning helps guide you now and for the future and puts your mind at ease. If it seems appropriate, talk about possible scenarios where you and the rest of the family may have to make crucial medical decisions, and knowing what your loved one wants will help guide them. 

Expect resistance

If you expect resistance, you won’t be surprised. You will be prepared. Staying emotionally calm and centered is the best reaction to resistance. Your loved one wants to be heard and acknowledged. Remember that opposition is usually based on fear and discomfort.

How to Guide a Love One Through the End-of-Life Planning Process

If you are ready emotionally and have the documents you will need, things will go more smoothly. The term “guide” is a good one because it suggests that this is a process and a journey. You may even grow closer to your loved one by having these conversations, but some may be upsetting. 

Step 1: Be prepared

Be prepared by knowing what all of the pieces are for advance directives and planning for your loved one’s state. If it seems reasonable, print off a list of the documents that your loved one may need so you can guide the discussion. You want to exude confidence and competence. The process can be overwhelming, so the more you can simplify it, the better.

If your loved one is reluctant to fill out any advance and estate planning documents with you, suggest an estate planning attorney and have one picked out to offer. Make an appointment then and there to meet with the attorney to start the process. 

Understand definitions of terms like healthcare proxy, Do Not Resuscitate, memory care, home care, trusts, and financial power of attorney. Don’t assume that your loved one can grasp the meaning of these terms and the role they play in end-of-life decisions. 

Step 2: Enlist help

Help can come from several sources. One is family. If you have siblings who can assist with the conversations, it might be helpful. Also, your loved one’s primary care physician, whom some people have a lot of faith in, can make suggestions as well. It is standard now in most healthcare settings for patients to be asked about their advance directives and Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) orders. 

Step 3: Break tasks into smaller sections

Rather than sitting down and expecting to cover a whole host of end-of-life decisions, break down choices into smaller discussion topics. For example, if your loved one hasn’t decided on a healthcare proxy, begin with that. The healthcare proxy discussion can be a great way to open a talk about specific end-of-life decisions since the healthcare proxy will be responsible for carrying out your loved one’s wishes.

Step 4: Talk about death

Here is where things get serious. Talking about death brings up values, beliefs, fears, and misunderstandings. Accept the fact that you might be surprised to learn that your loved one’s desires at end-of-life are not what you expected. Try to keep an open mind and accept that these are their wishes, not yours.

Step 5: Emphasize flexibility

Explain to your loved one that end-of-life planning is flexible. Reviewing these documents should and can take place regularly. End-of-life decisions change with someone’s medical condition and even value system.

Frequently Asked Questions: Getting Loved Ones or Parents to Plan for End of Life

Although we have covered some tips to get you started, here are some specific questions you might have that are common in these situations. You know your loved one best, so don’t hesitate to personalize any recommendations.  

What if my loved one is resistant to planning? What can I do?

If your loved one is resistant to planning, take your time and find out why. There is always a reason, and if you can have open and honest discussions about barriers, you can address those to move things forward.

Plan on coming back another time to continue the discussion if your loved one gets anxious. You don’t have to decide everything in one meeting, but keep things moving along by planning another one.

Consider turning the process over to another family member if things get contentious. You might need a break, and the last thing you want to do is alienate your loved one. If your loved one flat-out refuses to discuss end-of-life planning after your repeated efforts, let it go. 

When’s the best time to bring up end-of-life planning to my loved one?

The short answer? As soon as possible. The longer you wait, the more difficult it might become later. There are several reasons for this. First, most people as they age begin with some physical decline. The risk of illness or injury or other medical problems grows with age. 

Secondly, if your loved one begins to decline mentally, either due to cognitive impairment or some other condition, the process will be very challenging. It is not unusual for aging adults to become easily overwhelmed by decisions and struggle with complex concepts. 

Another consideration you may not have thought of is the time of day. Try and think about when your loved one is most clear and has the energy to discuss end-of-life issues. Ensure that there is plenty of time and no interruptions or distractions. Grandchildren underfoot during this serious discussion is probably not a good idea. 

What should I avoid saying when bringing up end-of-life planning to a loved one?

The most important thing to avoid saying when bringing up end-of-life planning to a loved one is, “You must decide.” In reality, they don’t have to decide, and many people never do. It is in everyone’s best interest for your loved one to do end-of-life planning, but there is no requirement that they do so except in cases of emergency surgery or admission to senior living. 

Also, avoid saying, “if you don’t decide, I will…” This sounds like a threat, and you don’t want your loved one making these critical decisions under threat anyway.

Avoid discussions about inheritance. Understanding your loved one’s financial picture and appointing a financial power of attorney is part of long-term planning. So is a will. But, avoid sensitive discussions of inheritance during end-of-life planning, especially if there is family conflict around this issue. 

Talking with Your Loved One About End-of-Life Planning

End-of-life planning discussions can be tough, but with a plan, you accomplish this important task. Keep an open mind, and be a calm and compassionate presence. Your loved one will be grateful in the end to state their end-of-life wishes, knowing that they will be followed.

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