It’s arguably one of the most difficult conversations most of us will have in our lives, but discussing dying with an elderly loved one is sadly a necessity.
Whether your loved one is healthy but growing older or they are in the midst of battling a life threatening condition, nothing will make having the talk easy, but in this blog we’ve compiled some useful advice for opening the lines of communication.
Start talking early if you can
Unfortunately sometimes life takes us by surprise, and you can find yourself in an unexpected situation where you suddenly need to discuss death with some degree of urgency. However, if you have an elderly parent or relative who is healthy, it’s worth broaching the subject in general conversation where you can.
For example, if an older relative is talking about family heirlooms or a business they have, it may be worth asking what they would like to happen with it in the future to encourage discussing creating a will or thinking about nominating a Lasting Power of Attorney. There are two different types of LPAs – health & welfare and property & financial affairs – so dependent on circumstances, a loved one may want to consider having one so you can make decisions on their behalf, if they are in poor health and not able to do so themselves. Thinking about who this person may be earlier on in older age can help to make things easier when the time comes.
Discussing dying is an emotive conversation, but it’s worth remembering there are practical aspects to having the conversation too. Sadly, funeral arrangements and wills have to be made, and discussing with your loved one what they would like can be comforting in the long run, if very upsetting short term. Inheritance Tax has also been in the news of late, and while it can be an especially awkward thing to speak about, most loved ones wouldn’t want family members to pay unnecessary fees on what they stand to inherit.
Think about care too – if a loved one has been diagnosed with an illness or requires care, how would they like to be treated? If you’re unsure of options or how to broach the subject, talking to a healthcare professional that has experience of this can help. They may be able to suggest the best ways to offer support and make care options clear. They can also help if you are fearful of seeing a loved one in an upsetting condition following an illness or surgery.
Be honest about death to children or younger family members
It’s a natural instinct to want to protect children from upsetting things in life, but as they grow there are a number of uncomfortable yet necessary conversations to be had, including discussing dying. Explaining to them the emotions they may experience and that they’re completely normal is a big part of offering reassurance. Asking them how they feel about a grandparent or elderly relative’s death and making sure they know they can always speak to you about it at any time can help alleviate the stress of losing a family member or elderly friend.
Pick up on signals
You may feel as if a loved one who has been told they may not have long left to live doesn’t want to talk about it through fear or sadness. This may be the case, but they may also find themselves feeling unsure how to broach the topic too for fear of being a burden or causing stress to those they love. You may think they’re avoiding the topic; however they may also offer subtle hints that they would like to discuss how they feel about dying or any wishes they have. Listen and respond – you don’t have to outright ask questions straight away, but gradually leading them on to the topic with various questions that can help them to feel as if they have instigated the conversation can help.
Use everyday life to help open up discussions
Often bringing up discussing dying can seem intense, so instead look for ways of weaving the topic in to everyday life. For example, perhaps your loved one watches a soap or TV show where someone has recently passed away – discussing this could be a way to lead on to how they would feel when it’s their time. In the same way, you may see an advert for a Funeral Director which could in turn allow you to discuss passing away without feeling embarrassed or awkward.
Don’t be fearful
Discussing dying can make people fearful of an emotionally charged situation and the tears or outbursts that may accompany the discussion. While it’s easier said than done, accepting the discussion and offering comfort goes a long way. Avoiding the situation or desperately trying to skirt around the issue to avoid tears is not going to help you, or the person you’re talking to – grief is a natural part of talking about dying, and as hard as it may be at the time, part of getting through it is allowing yourself and loved ones to mourn.
Don’t underestimate the value of humour
It may sound inappropriate, but often we struggle to talk about serious topics, and some can even trigger an awkward laugh as we’re unsure how to handle it. Don’t be fearful of laughter or feel you’re being disrespectful, as often those living their final moments will appreciate a well-timed light hearted comment which can help to provide a bit of relief from a stressful situation. As Age UK’s guide points out, often when we’re in a sad situation, we look for the right or clever thing to say, when in actual fact often we don’t need to. A comforting anecdote or hand to hold can often be just enough.
To find out how telecare could help to keep a loved one independent for longer in older age, please contact us here. If you would like further support with discussing dying or to find services for those in the last years of their life, please visit: https://www.dyingmatters.org.