Something that people don’t want to deal with is confronting the fact that their parents are going to eventually die. In our culture we don’t encourage people to talk about death because we honor youth and vitality, not old age. Consequently, many people have never had a discussion with their parents about what happens when they are in place where their health fails, where they are not going to continue to live. Because we don’t think about or talk about what people’s wishes are, we are ill prepared to honor those needs and desires at end of our lives. The first time that I had that conversation with my parents was when we started to talk about the importance of having a health care directive.

They were already in their 80’s but we had never discussed what they wanted. It was very clear from my discussion with my Dad upon filling out his healthcare directive paperwork, what his wishes were.  One thing that he made very clear to me was that upon getting ill, if he found himself in the hospital, he wanted to make sure that there were no forms of artificial means used to sustain his life if he was going to die anyway. He wanted to be allowed to just die naturally. Here’s the tricky part, in a health care directive you are required to identify a person to act as your agent on your behalf if you are unable to communicate about your wishes. A person can identify someone or number of people to serve as their agents. In my case, my father decided to identify both my older sister and myself as the agents to fulfill his wishes and desires if he was unable to do so.

When my father shared with me that he had elected to identify both my sister and myself to serve as his agents, this initiated a whole different conversation between us. I asked him to please explain why he had decided to have both my sister and myself to be his agents on the healthcare directive. My Dad explained, true to his nature, that he thought this was the fairest way to deal with the responsibility and burden. My response to him questioned his decision in appointing two individuals who had never been able to make decisions without conflict. My mother was not a part of this conversation. I then said to my Dad that I thought that it was crucial that instead of doing what he thought was fair, he should evaluate which of his children would be able to execute his wishes without allowing their own emotions to get in the way. I pointed out to my father that he ought to reconsider his decision. I told him that I wasn’t willing to have my name equally involved with making decisions with my sister because that would cause conflict and would reduce my ability to act as his agent. I asked him to respectfully withdraw my name on the health care directive as his agent. This same issue was the case for both my parents. After my father thought about it he came back to me a couple of days later. He had decided it was in his best interest to just have me be on his directive and that’s how the situation was resolved.

Two years later, my father was diagnosed with late stage pancreatic cancer and was hospitalized. They attempted to do immediate surgery but the cancer was inoperable. While in the hospital his condition worsened, and a decision was required regarding honoring his desires to not have his life maintained artificially. I was required to pick the date and the time when his life would be stopped.

What are the life lessons involved in this situation?

I would say one is the importance of having that conversation ahead of time, before your parent becomes ill. The second take away is to encourage your parent to choose the right agent for the job. The third lesson is to not be afraid to talk to your parents about dying because it is natural and part of our life process. Make sure your parents have a current will and make sure you have a copy of a will. Yes it’s cheap and convenient to create online but you’re far better off getting an attorney to write your will if you are able. Also very critical is the documents that make up the advanced health care directive. This consists of several items and in most states the forms are readily available and free.  Usually, these consist of a POLST or Physician’s Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment, a general power of attorney, and a health care directive that specifies wishes regarding health related scenarios.

Check back next week for more from Dr. Davis on how to address the needs of aging parents and ways you can be prepared to support them in their elderly years.

With over 37 years in the practice of clinical psychology, Dr. Mikol Davis is practiced in the art of helping people of all generations and backgrounds lead better lives. He provides mental competency testing for elders, support and help with aging parents and interpersonal difficulties. He is sensitive to the changes elders must face as they age and lose independence. He is experienced in helping to reduce conflicts among family members and others. Dr. Davis received his doctorate in Psychology from the University of San Francisco in 1980. He has been in private practice in Marin County, California since 1976.

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Through developing close relationships with medical specialists, support groups and services, Dr. Davis has assisted many families with important community resources for aging loved ones. He is recognized aging expert and gerontologist.

Since founding AgingParents.com with his wife Carolyn Rosenblatt, Dr. Davis has offered important emotional support and resources for family members caring for aging parents. The emotional burden in making critical decisions about aging parents, elder care and safety can often be overwhelming for concerned family members. Dr. Davis is well versed in these subjects both personally and professionally. He assists with these difficult decisions. He provides one-on-one emotional support for the primary caregivers of elders, teaches coping skills, and helps the caregiver avoid burnout and overload. Dr. Davis is also passionate about the prevention of elder abuse.

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