It’s a common childhood fear: the death of a parent. You don’t have to look far to find someone who recalls youthful nightmares about losing their mom or dad to a car accident or disease. Now that you’re grown, perhaps the fear of losing a spouse weighs heavily on your mind.
For many that fear never goes away. Facing a parent’s mortality gets no easier because you’re 50 and your parent is 80. And avoiding the inevitable won’t change the outcome for any family member who is nearing their final days. What’s more, that fear may be keeping your family from making important decisions that could impact the way your loved ones want to spend their final days and years. In fact, North American adult children surveyed cited fear as the most common reason (at 36 percent) for being uncomfortable discussing plans for their parents’ final years, according to research conducted by Home Instead Inc.
Ironically, it’s a topic that is top of mind, according to research. A 2015 study conducted for the UK’s Dying Matters Coalition reported that a third of British adults (32 percent) think about death and dying at least once a week. And yet, just 18 percent say they have asked a family member about their end-of-life wishes.
But still, the curiosity persists. Nearly half (46.4 percent) of U.S. Boomers said they would like to know more about their parents' end-of-life wishes including medical directives, according to earlier Home Instead Senior Care research.
“In the case of parents, adult children must understand they now need to be the ones making the decisions,” said Dr. Julie Masters, chair of the Department of Gerontology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “You can’t stay in the child’s role, but make decisions in the best interest and safety of loved ones. For some, that is very difficult. It can be hard to let go.”
Fear of a loved one’s impending final days may be compounded by the prospect of watching someone go through the unpleasant phases that could lead to death. The thought of feeding tubes and ventilators, cognitive decline and life in a nursing home may be difficult for many family caregivers to fathom. Loss of independence and the prospect of leaving home could be powerful influences to keep family caregivers and seniors from broaching topics of importance with their loved ones.
However, end-of-life fears that lead to avoidance only delay the inevitable.
Following are ways to combat those fears
• Don’t wait for a crisis. Senior care professionals surveyed by Home Instead Senior Care report that 70 percent of family conversations about aging are prompted by an event such as a health crisis or other emergency. Talking before a crisis can help alleviate the fear that might accompany the chaos of an emergency.
• Talk it out. Opening the door to relevant conversations could help give a loved one permission to broach topics they may otherwise be reluctant to bring up. Discuss with a parent what you’ve observed and ask them what they think is going on. Learn more about important conversations related to the aspects of aging.
• Put a plan in place. Information is power. By understanding what loved ones want, you’ll know how best to react to common fears about aging. For example, if family members have a fear of feeding tubes and ventilators, suggest they establish a living will that would detail their preferences. Or encourage a family member to do that by taking the lead and making arrangements for yourself. If going to a nursing home is a fear, investigate options for end-of-life-care outside a nursing home.
• Focus on independence. Statistics reveal that most older adults would prefer not only to age at home, but to die at home as well. According to Stanford School of Medicine, studies have shown that approximately 80 percent of Americans prefer to die at home, if possible. Yet 60 percent die in acute care hospitals, 20 percent in nursing homes and only 20 percent at home. Moving toward solutions that can help maximize independence and allow a senior to remain at home could help alleviate anxiety.
Consult the experts. Experts can help you turn your fears about end-of-life into action. Call my office and we can mail you our booklet on the 40-70 Rule: An Action Plan for Successful Aging.
It’s normal to feel anxious about initiating conversations related to a loved one’s final days and years, but it’s likely already on their minds and they may feel relieved to discuss their thoughts with you. The best thing you can do is give them the opportunity to share what’s on their hearts.
Julie Ann Soukoulis is the owner of Home Instead Senior care office in Rohnert Park, mother of two and passionate about healthy living at all ages. Having cared for her own two parents, she understands your struggles and aims, through her website, www.homeinstead.com/sonoma to educate and encourage seniors & caregivers. Have a caregiving or aging concern? She’d love to hear from you at 586-1516 anytime.