Holiday gatherings are a good time to discuss an uncomfortable subject - end-of-life decisions

The holiday season is a time for families to gather together, open presents, share meals and … discuss the end of our lives.

Discuss the end of our lives?

If discussing The End seems out of place to you, you may need to rethink your priorities. There is no good time to discuss planning for the end of our lives. As a result, far too many people never discuss the topic with their loved ones.

In fact, a recent study noted that only one-third of U.S. adults have advanced directives for their end-of-life care. This lack of planning means loved ones are often left with no guidance when something goes wrong. Instead of having a plan in place, decision-makers are left to grapple with tough choices at times when they’re already under tremendous stress and emotional fatigue.

Rather than ignoring the topic any longer, here are four excellent reasons why the holidays are the best time to have this admittedly tough conversation. Ultimately it provides the gift of peace of mind for you and your family.

A spoonful of sugar

At a time when family gatherings seem to be few and far between, the holidays represent one of the rare times when many folks are gathered in one place. It’s a very personal discussion, and doing it in person can ensure wishes are conveyed clearly. Many will probably say they don’t want to bring down the rest of the festivities, but the festive mood is just the spoonful of sugar needed to help the medicine go down.

Make your wishes known – and learn others’ wishes as well

Knowing what to do ahead of time makes a difficult time easier. Having the conversation now while everyone is able to speak for themselves means everyone will be able to voice their own wishes and learn the wishes of their loved ones.

The key things to discuss are whether everyone has a living will, durable power of attorney and any specific wishes.

It’s vital that the person who has power of attorney fully understands what a loved one means when he or she says: “I don’t want to be hooked up to a machine” or “I don’t want to go into a nursing home.” It’s good for all family members to be aware of everyone’s wishes.

Everyone can participate

The more the merrier. Younger family members can benefit from seeing adults model a healthy conversation about end-of-life planning. Hearing their adult relatives have a frank discussion normalizes the conversation and demonstrates the importance of being open with one’s wishes. For minors who are old enough to participate in the conversation but don’t yet need to fill out formal paperwork this is still a great opportunity to make their wishes known. This enables everyone to talk about their feelings and wishes in a nonthreatening way.

Peace of mind is a wonderful thing

As hard as it is to start this conversation, starting it is the key. Even if no one fills out formalized paperwork (blank copies of living wills are available online), having the conversation is a major step toward peace of mind.

This doesn’t have to be a heavy conversation; humor is critical in dealing with these things. You have to laugh at life. This is not a conversation just about death – it’s about what’s most important to you in life.

If you’re not sure how to facilitate this critical conversation with your family this holiday season, I’ll leave you with some tips on getting started:

  • Let folks know ahead of the big gathering that you want to discuss end-of-life issues. This notification can be as formal or informal as suits your family. This gives people time to think ahead of time about why they want to say.
  • Broach end-of-life issues as something you’re concerned about. Say that you’d like to take just half an hour to talk about these things and learn what everyone’s wishes are. Note that it’s better to talk about it now than in a crisis situation.
  • Be intuitive toward the feelings of others and understand that not everyone will be ready or willing to have this conversation.
  • When someone states their wishes, repeat them back to make sure you truly understand.

Give the Five Wishes booklets as presents and have other documents available for everyone to take home.

Ann Norwich is director of the Adult Gerontology Nursing Practitioner Program and an assistant professor of nursing at York College of Pennsylvania. She is also a practicing nurse practitioner in the palliative care field.

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