How To Talk To An Aging Loved One About End-Of-Life Decisions

Laurel McLaughlin

While death is inevitable, it’s a conversation topic that we frequently shy away from. 

End-of-life planning is a key aspect of long-term care planning. These conversations are important for everyone - not just those with a terminal illness or serious illnesses. 

Having open and honest conversations in advance can decrease future stress and increase peace of mind.

In this article, we’ll cover five helpful tips to guide you toward approaching the end-of-life topic with your loved one.

5 Tips For Having The End-Of-Life Conversation With Your Loved One

Having a conversation about end-of-life wishes is never easy. However, with the following five tips, you will be able to have a successful and informative conversation with your loved one. 

1. Be Mindful Of The Time & Place

When you’re ready to have a conversation with your loved one about their end-of-life wishes, be considerate of the timing of your conversation.

Think about a time and place where your loved one feels most comfortable and at their best. Perhaps it’s a quiet time at home or while out for a drive. 

Consider who should be a part of the conversation. Some people may feel that their loved one would benefit from having the support of other family members or friends, a religious leader, or even a trusted healthcare professional. Others may prefer just having a close loved one at their side. 

If you are not your loved one’s Health Care Proxy and Power of Attorney, be sure to include them in the conversation.

Keep in mind your loved one’s tolerance for having difficult questions. Your loved one may benefit from having the conversation in small bits, at different times.

2. Gather Legal Documents

Before having an end-of-life conversation with your loved one, gather any legal documents that they have previously filled out. These documents include advanced directives, living wills, and advanced directive forms. These documents focus on your loved one’s end-of-life wishes for medical treatment.

When filling out these documents, they likely appointed a Health Care Proxy or Medical Power of Attorney to make medical decisions.

A healthcare provider will also guide your loved one with a POLST form.

Discuss your loved one’s bank accounts, online profile account information, social media accounts, for example, and life insurance policies at this time. If your loved one is apprehensive about sharing information, suggest they store the information in a folder that you know the location of.

Some of this documentation may have been completed already if your loved one has completed estate planning for their financial planning.

3. Plan Your Questions Ahead of Time

Go into your conversation with questions prepared.

The goal of the conversation is to gather your loved one’s preferences for the end of their life. This not only includes healthcare decisions like life-sustaining medical treatments but also values and emotional preferences - such as who they want around them at the end of their life.

There are many excellent resources such as The Conversation Project which outlines questions and rating systems to gain an understanding of your loved one’s preferences at the end of their life. They recommend open-ended questions such as “What’s most important to you at the end of life…” and “How do you picture the end of your life”.

Below are some basic questions to keep in mind when talking with your loved one: 

  • How much life-sustaining treatment would they like? Do not resuscitate? Artificial nutrition? 

    • Is your loved one an organ donor?

    • What defines the quality of life? What’s important in the final days?

    • Where would they ideally like to be? Home? 

    • What are their preferences for senior care? Would they prefer home care, or are they open to nursing home care?

    • Who would they like around them? Family members, friends, religious leaders? 

    • Who would you like to make end-of-life decisions? 

    • Who would you like to be informed about your condition? 

    • Would they like palliative care or hospice care?

    • Do they have any final wishes?

If your loved one is open to it, consider extending the conversation to after-life care and funeral arrangements. Ask questions about preferences for memorial services, funeral homes versus houses of worship, and burials versus cremation.

4. Normalize The Conversation

This type of conversation may be overwhelming and can provoke a range of emotions. It can be helpful to frame the questions around future planning such as “When the time comes…”. Making it feel farther off in the distance can help your loved one feel more comfortable having open discussions. 

In addition, normalizing the conversation can go a long way in making your loved one feel more comfortable. 

Talking to your loved one about their end-of-life decisions can help you learn about their wishes. Consider mentioning what your wishes are for the end of your life as well. Present the conversation as something that multiple members of the family are having in order to plan for the future.  

Assure your loved one that decision-making does not have to be completed at this time. Encourage your loved one to give your questions some thought and ask when a good time to circle back to the conversation may be.


5. Be Thoughtful & Take Care of Yourself

Conversations about end-of-life care are emotional. Keep in mind that your loved one may experience a range of emotions when you’re bringing up the end of their life and the decisions that need to be made.

It’s also normal for you as the caregiver to experience a variety of emotions during the conversation. Take care of yourself during this time with tools like: 

  • Working with a mental health specialist

    • Attending a support group

    • Journaling

    • Use a meditation app a few minutes a day

While discussing end-of-life care is hard, it ultimately reduces stress in the future and allows you to spend quality time with your loved one at the end of their life.