Families who head to an attorney to discuss or put in place their powers of attorney, have, at some level, had a conversation about mortality, either with themselves or with their loved ones. The bottom line is the concept, forethought and some variety of a conclusion has transpired. In all likelihood a few particulars may have been overlooked; but the attorney can walk them through the process, sweeping up the previously untended details, to put together a succinct package that provides an appropriate safety net. Relief is achieved; life continues with a certain sense of confidence.
Oddly, it is in the often perceived "less important" decisions that are made during more uncomfortable conversations, that belies much of the stress families will face down the road. These critical conversations don't often take place, because typically there isn't a definitive, affordable, workable solution we can fathom to effectively deal with some of those uncomfortable topics. And besides, we don't have to worry about that stuff yet – or so we think.
Have you ever posed to you yourself how you would like to have details handled when you are no longer able to safely drive? This is the toughest scenario for all of us to consider, as the final outcome directly affects our independence. Ouch! By design, nature rather beautifully steps into play because we adapt to our situations. We stop driving at night. We stay within a 5-10 mile radius of home. We stay off the freeways. We stop making left turns, only turning right so we don't have to cross traffic. I am sure you are smiling at this point, with a chuckle in your heart because you know people who do this. Bravo! This is BRILLIANT because we are realizing our limitations and adapting to put ourselves and others in a safer situation. Self-observant individuals realize their reactions aren't as swift; they may have lost their comfort in driving at higher speeds, or realize at some level that they have lost their edge. In my world, these heroes relinquish their keys on their own.
But what about those who no longer possess the ability to see they are putting both themselves and others at risk? Do we take the keys away and hope for the best, or suffer continued indignation because we played the role of the bad guy? Do we hide the keys or remove the battery from the car and feign innocence in a difficult situation? Sadly, these scenarios are all too common. A significant portion of our population believes that – since they have not had an accident for a long period of time, (we're talking 60 or 70 or 80+ years) or ever – they are safe to continue with the status quo.
Put yourself in your clients' shoes: Do you have a plan for how you would like it handled when you are no longer able to stay at home safely? Those of us with means have more options than those of us who have limited incomes. Home care is an option if it is affordable to those in need. The alternative is moving. Moving is much easier and considerably less traumatic when done by choice and not by necessity. Choice gives us both control and options. However, when we allow that decision to be made when our options become very limited, the stress that ensues affects more than just the individual who needs to move. The stress factor affects not only the entire circle of loved ones involved, but even the power of attorney typically, and the staff at the new home. Both the physical and emotional health of someone who has to move against their will is palpably affected. Moving can be disorienting at best, and in some cases downright devastating. People do not like discussing these possibilities.
Many of us declare we don't ever want to be moved to "the home." Our loved ones promise us that they won't move us there. But how do you want it handled when your loved one no longer has the health or the stamina and strength to care for you appropriately? Do we want those individuals to be wracked with guilt because they are no longer fulfilling their promise to us? Or, can we agree that we will be allowed to stay at home as long as it is successfully working for all parties?
It is common knowledge that families who professionally pre-plan their funerals will get proper counseling to the practices and laws of their particular State(s), but the long-term and real value is making things so much easier and more comfortable for survivors. Those who just jot some notes of their wishes to be cremated in a file, are usually shocked to find out that, while there is the legal hierarchy of who becomes a decision maker when we are ill or pass away without agents, it can become complicated if their children don't agree with this decision. This is information most people don't know.
I pose all of these situations to be considered personally because if we consider it personally, it becomes easier for us to consider it professionally. When we have a stake in a situation, the point is taken more seriously. It's real. One of life's inevitabilities is that we die – it is a gift that we get to age! These are everyday real issues aging people and their families dance around instead of tackling. People need help to see that talking about these issues can and will diffuse stress, anger and frustration down the road. Much of the stress of aging and illness is due to the unknown of what happens next. It is human nature to deny or to rationalize the changes we are experiencing because the alternative is scary. And, we know that when crisis strikes or even when normal life happens, we can lose the ability to think clearly. But, engaging these thoughts before it's too late helps us to create our future based upon our wishes today, while we are of sound mind, so nobody has to guess about it later. That is the greatest gift we can give to ourselves and to our loved ones. The reality is, most people don't go there. They do not have someone to suggest or to advocate for having these critical conversations.
As professionals dealing with an aging population, we have a unique opportunity to pose these questions to our clients. We need to put the concept of these critical conversations into our discussions with our families. The ideal goal is affording people the opportunity to think about these topics and to address them with their loved ones or their legal guardians before life becomes challenging and before it's too late to have the conversation and make an informed decision. Facilitating a discussion to get families to consider the concept of critical conversations before crisis arises will significantly reduce everyone's stress levels because they will know how to proceed to fulfill their loved ones' wishes.
Attorneys are temporary insiders we invite into our life goals and our most personal decision-making endeavors. Attorneys carry a weight of trusted professionalism, expertise and objectivity outside the boundaries of family dynamics. It is another tenet of human nature not to heed the opinions or advice of those closest to us when difficult situations arise. We are more apt to listen to an outsider because we don't dismiss their worries as petty or inapplicable. Attorneys are in an ideal position to pose the concept of critical conversations.
As a professional in the senior world, I ask you to please consider introducing this concept to your clients. You can set them up for continued success, building on those life goals and legal documents. You can provide a life-changing intangible and invaluable service above and beyond the scope of typical services rendered. How amazing would it be if we can get as many people as possible, to not just imagine, but plan for… how they want it handled when…?