Our mom is an active 71 years old. She still works full time, plays bridge 2 or 3 times a week, attends performances of her grandson’s punk rock band, helped her granddaughter move into her college dorm last year and still enjoys her bourbon and ginger ale while socializing with her friends. We like to think of her as full of boundless energy, but my sister and I realize she has slowed down some over recent years. Having worked with ElderServe for 13 years I have had many conversations with people my age who are having to deal with their aging parents and typically these conversations are in a time of crisis. I know firsthand the importance of being proactive in these manners before the need arises. However, knowing my sister and I need to discuss living wills and other end of life subjects with our mom when all is well and having those discussions is a bit more challenging.
I have tried a couple times to bring up the subject of a living will, I have asked a few questions about what she would like to do with some of her personal things and have even mentioned funeral planning. She typically responds with “I don’t want to talk about that” or complete silence. The only thing I know for sure is that her funeral better be graveside and “not in the damn concrete block shed at the cemetery.” Facing responses like that, rather than pursue the discussion I would give up and think I’ll try another time.
As I sit here writing this, I wish I had been more persistent in talking with my mom. About 3 weeks ago we learned that she has bile duct cancer that extends into the liver via the duct’s vessels. Since surgery is not an option at this time, treatment will be a combination of chemotherapy and radiation that will provide, as the doctor said, “durable results”. Now not only are we learning about this form of cancer, scheduling appointments with various doctors and dealing with the toll it’s taking on our mom we must have conversations about her end of life wishes that at one time seemed avoidable but now are not. We no longer think of living wills and health care surrogates as something that might need to be used in some distant future, but more than likely will be needed and much sooner than we expected. We can no longer tease her about who gets what after she is gone, but we must talk about how she wants things divided. The luxury of waiting for a better time to discuss her funeral wishes no longer exists. In addition to all those needed discussions, we now must think about our work schedules and who can be there when needed, who are friends that can help when called upon and the simplest of things such as preparing extra meals for her or cleaning her house.
Facing the reality of losing a parent or loved one is never easy. Having discussions about catastrophic medical issues or end of life decisions for our parents is difficult. But as children who are now facing these issues, it sure would have been easier had we these conversations when things were going well as opposed to having them now.