Denver, CO — “If you’re avoiding making a plan for your future, you’re probably doing it wrong — kind of like sex.” At least that’s what a wise woman in my businesswomen’s group said at the beginning of 2019. Making a plan and writing it down was on everyone’s minds this year. Even the library contacted me soon after that, wanting someone to speak on this very topic — planning for the future (not sex). Some people really want to talk about this (planning) and yet the conversations we intend to have, we often put off — until we have to think about them (kind of like sex). But maybe it doesn’t have to be so dreadful. I mean, what makes it hard to talk about what we would want when-should-would something were to happen to us?
For one thing, it’s sad. We’re anticipating a loss of either not knowing what’s going to happen or losing someone else. We are taught how to acquire good things — such as memories and connections and stuff — but not taught well in how to let go.
To boot, these talks can get paternalistic really fast, as in: You need to get this done, so-and-so, so we know what you want. Usually this is targeted at someone older with a shaming tone, like we’re talking to a child with overdue homework (also check out The Negative Effects of Elderspeak). True, we should try to get at least a few ducks in a row when it comes to planning — and we all know the people who identify as “planners” who have had this done since they were 22. But for the rest of us, talking about this stuff doesn’t have to be an awful, one-way conversation. See if any of these ideas will work for you:
- Replace “We need to talk…”, with “When it comes time to make these decisions, who do you want to make them with?” Can’t you feel in your body the difference between those two phrases? The second one instantly creates a safe place. It gives someone choice and, lord knows, most of us have been picky all our lives with whom we trust to listen and help us weigh our options. The qualities of good decision-supporters are that they validate when we are making the best decisions we can at this moment in time; they point out the possible results of the decision but are not attached to the outcome; and they let us change our minds. If we can identify the people we want to make decisions with, it’s easier to be the one to say, “I need to talk….” when the time comes.
- Hold family meetings at a neutral time. While the holidays or someone’s birthday (especially ones ending with ‘0’) are natural times to mention, “We need to start this conversation…” because everyone is in the same room, it’s not the best time to spring for an impromptu family meeting on burial plans or packing up the family home where everyone ends up in tears. When we do this, often we’re left with an emotional hangover that’s now attached to what had started as a day of celebration. Do what you can to schedule the meeting later, like on Thursday, sometime in March.
- Make it an “us” instead of a “you”. Guess what? Colorado happens to be what we call an “interested parties” state which means that if I am alive but unresponsive in a hospital and I don’t have a designated decision-maker, the doctor and social worker get all interested parties in the same room and decide who will call the shots on my care. This person becomes my “medical proxy”. It could be my dental hygienist — whom I happen to like — but I would rather it be the person I designate in my Medical Durable Power of Attorney (called my “agent”). If we expect someone else to do this planning in our family (ie. our parents), we should do it too. It’s free and you don’t need an attorney — one place to start is here: Colorado Care Planning. Click on “Roadmap”, then “Write down your Wishes” to print a standard medical POA form. It does not need to be notarized however this is a good idea if you’re going to be traveling out of state.
- Plant seeds. A lot of people say, “My kids don’t want to talk about this stuff” and then a lot of kids tell me, “My parent won’t talk about this stuff”. It’s kind of like sex: we all assume that we’ve actually had this conversation when maybe we haven’t. And if you’re getting all the feels when the topic of planning comes up, that’s okay — this talk doesn’t have to all happen at once. Sometimes it takes one conversation, other times it takes a few — trust your threshold on how long or how much you can give out and take in.
- Bring in a third party. Bring in someone (maybe with a good sense of humor) who can get everyone to the table and figure out how to make sense of why it doesn’t feel like the Golden Girls when your mom moves in with you. Here’s the thing about family meetings — it’s really hard to make the rules and suddenly be in charge when likely the rest of the family didn’t give you that permission…and you want something to happen that the other person doesn’t. If you want the conversation to be fair and have everyone be heard and receive the same info, find a professional social worker, palliative care team, or case manager and ask them to lead the meeting or care conference. This takes care of one party not necessarily knowing how to talk about certain things and/or another party not even knowing what to ask. (And thus reason we also have sex ed).
Finally, try to ask open and curious questions and not assume you know what an answer will be (because that only makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me”…). Speaking of:
I once was called in to lead a family meeting for some adult kids who wanted their dad to stop driving. He was set up perfectly with a young professional renting the basement and able to take him places after 3pm. Still, he continued to drive. By the afternoon of our meeting, the car was in the shop (again) after he “nudged” a concrete piling all the way down the passenger doors. This left the kids scared and desperate. We talked about everything in that meeting, me uncomfortably navigating that was focused on him and only him: his record, his doctor saying he should give up the keys, how much it would cost if he got in an anther accident, let alone hurt someone. And he wouldn’t budge. At the end of our arguments, I asked, “So how long do you plan to continue driving?”
“Oh, I was thinking I’d stop on Tuesday,” he said. And that was it. We sat back astonished, realizing we’d completely forgotten to ask him what his plans were, forgotten that this was a smart human with a lifetime accumulation of experiences sitting in front of us.
When we finally get to the discussion about the plan, it’s easy to go into checklist mode: stop driving, check! But if you can figure out what really matters to someone and maybe even stay connected, all the work you put into the plan can actually authentically, magically, come true.
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Western Care Partners guides families through the maze of services and supports that come with assisting a loved one who is getting older. We explain resources, facilitate family conversations and provide guidance through the difficult situations that come up when someone needs more help. Contact us for more information: 720-675-9902 or www.westerncarepartners.com.