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Another Voice: Frank end-of-life discussion can be a gift for aging parents

By Amy Tucci

It’s the holiday surprise no one wants: seeing your aging parents and thinking how frail they look since the last time you saw them. That should be your cue to plan an end-of-life conversation while the family is together.

You may think that talking about death and dying is not in keeping with the holiday spirit, but having an open, frank discussion to understand your parents’ preferences at the end of their lives is an invaluable gift. Too many adult children wait to have these talks when their parents are dying or in the midst of a crisis, but these are the worst times. You want your parents to answer life-and-death questions before they develop a serious illness or a condition that leaves them unable to communicate or make coherent decisions.

If you’ve never had a discussion with your parents about end-of-life care, you are far from alone. Studies find that less than 50 percent of Americans discuss or document how they want to die and what is most valuable to them as they near the finish line.

Some parents may be hesitant about engaging in such a conversation. The Conversation Project provides a free “starter kit” on its website with tools and tips to help them talk about their wishes for end-of-life care. You can also find a link to that site from Hospice Foundation of America’s website, which provides more information about end-of-life care.

For parents who wish to avoid a conversation altogether, there are options. They can record their preferences in a living will, a dated letter or even in an email. Remind them that none of their decisions is written in stone and that they can always change their preferences at a later date as long as they can competently communicate.

If having an end-of-life discussion with your parents is simply unworkable, consider asking a trusted friend or health or social service professional to facilitate and document a discussion. Again, do not wait until an illness forces you to have this conversation.

So as you finalize your holiday plans, you may want to add one more item to your to-do list. Talking to your parents about end-of-life care is a heartfelt gift that you can wrap in layers of love and kindness.

Amy Tucci is president and CEO of Hospice Foundation of America.