Last October I wrote about "Important Conversations" with adult children, concerning money, and concerning other issues. Since then, I've been learning about something that ties in, called The Conversation Project, which focuses on the talks we should have about end of life issues.
In an ideal world, we all end our days without pain, able to talk lucidly with our loved ones, receiving blessings and forgiveness all around, and finally giving up the ghost in our own beds in a bright circle of love.
Now back to reality. Most Americans these days die in hospitals, not at home, often with tubes emerging from various natural and artificial orifices, often with their brains dulled by painkillers or other drugs. Many die suddenly from heart attacks or strokes or accidents or other impositions of fate and have no chance to say good-bye or anything else of importance.
In what many people consider the worst cases, we don't die at all, at least not for a long time. Instead we live on for months or years in a vegetative state, or with a brain and/or a personality that in younger years we would not have recognized as our own. And we are no longer capable of taking care of ourselves, or of making decisions about our own care.
Fortunately, this doesn't happen to all of us, but in one respect, we might be better off if it did. Because then we'd know we had to prepare for it.
Well, we still need to prepare, and that's what the Conversation Project is about. A free booklet (which you can print out at home) takes you through the process of figuring out what you would want others to decide on your behalf, particularly when it comes to the kind of medical care you'd want to receive or avoid, depending on the state you were in. There's lots to consider here, and it's a good idea to think about it carefully, and discuss it with your spouse or partner, if you have one, and then with your children, if you have them. It's also important, finally, to put your wishes into writing, using a format that will carry legal weight.
It's essential both to have the right documents in place and to have the right discussions with the right people. The documents should express your wishes on key points (would you want to be resuscitated if it appeared that you would be mentally incompetent, or would you want a feeding tube to be used to keep you alive?). Even so, a near infinite number of eventualities can occur, and it's impossible to document them all in advance. So you need to have at least one, and preferably two, people who know you well and love you, too, who will know how to make the same hard decisions you would make for yourself if you could.
And so it's necessary to have this Important Conversation with them as well.
Just as childood prepares us for adulthood, and adulthood should prepare us for retirement, retirement should itself prepare us for what comes next. For many people, this preparation has a spiritual component. And it also has legal and financial implications, which is why we should all have a last will and testament. But assuring that we end our lives in the fashion we would want, to the extent we can create such assurances, is also part of that preparation.
Children who are not yet adults are usually not ready to have such a discussion. But adult children are often more willing to do so than we elders expect. They understand that if things go wrong they are going to be put into a very difficult position. And not just having to make tough decisions for you. Without your own forethought and planning, they won't even have the legal ability to do so, and they will have to watch medical staff follow guidelines that some committee created and that might not match your wishes, or your family's wishes, at all. Those you might leave behind some day need your authority and your guidance. So it's for them as much as it's for you.
Yes, this can be a little tough to deal with, but really, not so much as you might think. And the Conversation Project folks give you a simple but very effective tool to help you make it happen.
Chuck Yanikoski is a retirement advisor who lives and works in Harvard. You can reach him at ChuckYRetirement.com.