Are you a baby-boomer having a difficult time talking to your parents about end of life issues? You are not alone. Are you a senior that wants to talk to your adult children about your funeral wishes and find they don’t want to discuss morbid topics? Once again; you are not alone. There is a huge communication problem with parents and their offspring when it involves talking about subjects relating to death, dividing assets, and other issues that should be planned for. Families seem to have an easy time talking about world issues, religion, and childrearing, but cannot start dialogue about personal wishes regarding life support and funeral arrangements. Research by the National Hospice Foundation shows that boomers would rather talk to their teens about sex and drugs than to talk to their terminally ill parents about end of life issues. Yikes! That is pretty startling since I know how much I avoid talking to my kids about sex!

I have had the opportunity to talk to many boomers that are terrified to approach their parents to talk about end of life issues. Some have tried it once. When they brought up the subject, they were met with a frosty glare and their parent’s comment, “You want my money before I am even dead, don’t you?” The conversation is halted before it even begins. Are we so intertwined with our self worth, being measured by our assets, that we don’t see the big picture? The big picture is this: we are all going to die and it is imperative that some arrangements are made beforehand.

I have also heard the other side of this mystifying coin. Seniors, knowing they have a terminal illness, have shared with me the dismal conversations they had with their adult children. When they approached their family, they were met with a look of horror as their offspring said, “You are going to be fine. I don’t want to talk about such depressing things.” Do they honestly think by not talking about it, the outcome will be different?

Talking about the issues can be similar to tiptoeing through a landmine with all the excess baggage that exists within each family. It can be a scary journey to embark on. Yet, the journey can only be started with open, honest dialogue.

If you fall into the category of an adult child that cannot allow their parents to talk about these issues, you have to face reality. Statistically, you will outlive your parents. Nobody wants to talk about death, but it is a fact of life. While there is life, you can ease your parent’s worries about things that are important to them, even if you find them morbid and depressing. A few hours of your time in an uncomfortable setting can be a positive experience for three reasons. One; you will get a clearer insight into parts of your parent’s personality they often do not share. Two; you will give your parent a sense of comfort and peace. Three; when you open up those huge doors that inhibit most families, you may find other issues being discussed that are personal and ultimately create a closer relationship.

How important is it to get your affairs in order? Personally, I think it is very important. There are many situations that can come along in life we cannot foresee. We can all do things to make it easier for our loved ones in the event of an unexpected crisis. September 11th was one of the most catastrophic days this country has ever experienced. I pray we never see another one like it. Yet, one interesting fact kept emerging. Since the average age of the victims was well below retirement age, the majority did not leave a will. There were no instructions on assets, children, and other personal wishes. Not leaving a will can tie up probate over a year. Getting your affairs in order is something that people of ALL ages should address.

Plain and simple: People cannot carry out your wishes if they do not know what they are. It is hard enough to make decisions for a person that is incapacitated, or dies unexpectedly when you know what they want. It is impossible to do when you have no idea what their wishes are. People tend to think they know what loved ones want. We incorporate our own feelings and beliefs into what we assume others want. Take a piece of paper and write down the names of five people you are the closest to. Next to their name, write what you think they want regarding a living will, cremation, organ donation, etc. Then ask each person how he or she really feels. Their answers might surprise you. I know when I did it; I was surprised how far off I was. It was enough to make me dig deeper into their feelings on other issues.

So, what do we do with this inability to communicate? I’m not sure I have the answers, but I do think that some of the communication problem lies in the delivery. If a boomer wants to initiate a discussion about end of life issues, they should probably NOT approach their parents with a statement like this: “I think you are getting old. How much money do you have? I think it’s time for you to make out a will.” Parents don’t take advice too easily from their kids, especially about their money. It might be better to say, “My spouse and I went to a lawyer today. We had a living will made up. This is what it is and this is why we did it. We also had a will drawn up because we want to be responsible parents if something should happen to us.” Mom and Dad might not jump over to the phone to call their lawyer, but it will give them food for thought. They can ask you questions and you can share your knowledge with them without it becoming a personal situation for them. Two generations have now opened up a line of communication. Communication is imperative!

If you are fortunate enough to break the ice and begin estate planning with your family, here are some issues that should be discussed.

1. Is there a will? Where is it?

I am often shocked that so many people I meet do not have a basic will. An estimated 57% of adult Americans do not have one. If you die without a will, your state has laws that will dictate how your possessions will be divided. It’s a nightmare for your heirs. If you already have a will, make sure that someone knows where it is.

2. Is there a Living Will? Where is it? Does everyone understand what it is?

A Living Will gives someone you trust the authority to disconnect life support if you are unable to communicate and are brain dead. A Living Will is a must to me. I don’t want to be kept alive on life support after my brain has ceased to function. If you don’t care if you are on life support for ten minutes or ten years then you should do nothing. Doing nothing is the equivalent of saying you don’t care. Living wills are often free when a lawyer draws up a will for you. They can also be obtained from your local hospital. Some states are now mandating that all overnight hospital patients must have a Living Will.

3. Organ Donor?

How do you feel about being an organ donor? If you want to be one, you can have it put on your driver’s license. If you don’t have a license, it is important to tell your loved ones what your wishes are. It’s a hard decision to make when there has been no dialogue on the subject. If your family knows what you want, the decision might still be hard, but not impossible.

4. Funeral Choices.

Few people like to talk about their personal wishes for their own funeral. It’s almost like they think talking about death will bring the Grim Reaper right to their front door. However, we are all going to die. Decisions like cremation or burial, to have a wake or not, and where people want to be buried will have to be decided by someone. Why not do it yourself? I know people that have planned every single detail, right down to the music they want played in the church. Now that is organization! People can also prepay their funeral expenses.

5. Where are the vital papers kept?

Items such as social security number, birth certificate, veteran information, marriage certificate, insurance policies (life and medical) should be stored in a place that family members can have easy access to in an emergency. I have met many boomers that had been told by their parents they had life insurance. Yet, after the parent passed away, no policy could ever be found. Without the policy and insurance company’s name and file number, no payment could be paid to beneficiaries.

6. Safe Deposit box?

If there is one, someone should know where it is and where the key is.

7. Bank Account

Where are bankbooks kept? Do you own stocks? Someone should have access to that information.

8. Pets?

If you have pets, whom do you trust to care for them if something happens to you? This is one that few people give thought to while organizing their final wishes.

9. A Living Trust

If you are fortunate enough to be in a high tax bracket, maybe a living trust might be in order. But ALWAYS consult a good, reputable estate attorney when making decisions about wills and trusts.

Being organized is the key to keeping updated estate documents. If the person you want to be responsible for carrying out your wishes can find all of your information quickly, it can save days, months, and even years for them. Hiding your important papers in the wall behind a picture might seem safe, but if nobody can find it, it’s useless. Being unable to find documents can also lead to inflated legal fees, regardless of the size of the estate.

Communication is imperative! In spite of what we might want to think; you cannot take it with you!

By Kathy Bosworth


  • Kathy Bosworth lives in Connecticut with her husband of 33 years. She is a mother of two and grandmother of three.

    After her mother suffered a massive stroke, she learned that long term nursing care has an exorbitant price tag; both financially and emotionally. She wrote her experiences in a book published a few years ago titled; Your Mother has Suffered a Slight Stroke. Since then she has been active in speaking and writing for stroke awareness and the realities of caregiving. She was recently the keynote speaker for the American Stroke Association's conference.