Sooner or later, we come face to face with our own mortality and that of those whom we love most. Aging is natural, frustrating, confusing, and inevitable. Aside from physical decline, we often watch loved ones lose their faculties to any number of frightening and incurable diseases. The fact that we’re all going to die is abstract early in our lives; however, as the years roll into decades, it becomes more of a certainty. Tragedy is an indiscriminate equalizer causing some to lose their siblings and parents during childhood. How and when it happens is dictated by forces far beyond our understanding and control.
What we can control is how we spend our finite amount of time with our nearest and dearest. This being a blog site dedicated to prepping, I’m going to give you some action points and things to consider as you live your life and prepare for what’s ahead. Everyone’s situation is different based on finances, geography, religious and cultural considerations, status of relationships and a host of other emotionally charged dynamics. As always, I’m going to encourage you to do what works best for you and yours.
The Important Stuff
The most important stuff of all is our relationship with our family. I’m not a therapist or family counselor and I don’t pretend to be. Sometimes our relationship with family is fraught with estrangement, anger, and pain. If this is your situation and the relationship is broken beyond repair, move on and do your best to live well. If not, getting the tough conversations out of the way now makes space for more positive memories.
Tough conversations are never easy, and the time is never right, nor will it ever be right. Trying to set the stage for the conversation can quickly become a source of stress and frustration. At some point, you can say whatever you wish but they’ll neither hear it nor be able to respond. Regardless of the situation with your family, do your best to let go of anger, pain, and live well with them as an integral part of your life.
The Messy Stuff
No one enjoys sorting through a loved one’s personal belongings and settling their affairs once they’ve passed. The best outcome is to encourage Mom and Dad to prepare wills while they’re able to do so. Families fight over small, material possessions as frequently and as vigorously as they do over money and property. This falls into the category of important, though difficult conversations, but in the absence of a will, if you can come to some sort of agreement with your siblings as to how Mom and Dad’s personal items and estate will be divided up, you’re avoiding a series of potentially divisive, lengthy, and hurtful interactions later.
Sometimes the sibling who is closest geographically and cared for them in their final years gets everything. Of course, this is almost guaranteed to create hard feelings with the remaining siblings and there may even be legal proceedings to force a more equitable division. Again, if you can have these conversations early and come to an agreement, everyone benefits.
What I’ve Done
I live roughly 1,220 miles away from my family. The last thing I want for my family is to endure the hassle of sorting out my affairs while trying to process the trauma and grief if I were to pass unexpectedly. I’ve not prepared a will but it’s coming. In the meantime, I’ve prepared a document that spells out my entire financial life: institutions and accounts; passwords and balances; debit/ATM cards and PINs; the passcode to unlock my phone and the combination to my safe. A couple of trusted friends have my family’s contact information and will reach out to them in the event something happens to me. The takeaway here is that I had the conversation with my family and friends at a time when I was in full possession of my faculties and thus able to make appropriate decisions. I discuss some of this in the post Important Documents so be sure to check it out.
It Takes a Village
One of the most obvious functions of the aging process is the loss of independence and what to do about it. This conversation is high on the list of one the most difficult to have. It’s driven by financial considerations as much as out of the practical concern of where and with whom Mom and Dad will live. I unpacked this one in the post Care and Assistance at Home. Discussing this early with far-flung siblings is challenging on many fronts. Invariably, one sibling lives close by and assumes the critical role of caretaker and decision-maker.
Family dynamics are complex and full of raw emotions which generally doesn’t add anything positive to the critical conversations that are essential for the proper care of aging parents. Resist the temptation to rehash arguments and settling scores from childhood shouldn’t be your goal. Establishing Power of Attorney, Medical Power of Attorney and Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) and Portable Medical Orders or POLSTs should be discussed while your parents are able to make decisions. You can always start the conversation by simply asking them what they want or what have they planned for.
To the extent that you can, involve everyone so they’re aware of the directives and as best you can, try to honor your parent’s wishes. Copies of these should be at hand for trips to the emergency room and, of course, should you need to quickly evacuate to a safer location. There are all sorts of assisted living facilities specializing in memory care, to those which do very little if the residents are ambulatory and in full possession of their faculties. Of course, none of these options are cheap and will likely consume the estate in a few years. This is not an easy or inexpensive decision, but if resources allow, it is a viable solution for many.
Shouldering the Burden
As a society, we tend to underestimate the expense, stress, time, and sheer toll caring for elderly parents takes on everyone involved. The oldest sibling is often expected to take on this role although, though sometimes the singleton or couple with no children can handle this. I think it’s clear that failing to contribute financially or rarely visiting quickly becomes a source of contention. Ideally, there should be regular conversations regarding the health status and needs of the parents as well as those of the caregivers. It’s important that everyone shares the same understanding regarding care and all the other emotionally charged needs. Unrealistic expectations only make a stressful situation worse and further strains relationships.
Before Our Very Eyes
I think one of the hardest parts of the aging process is the slow mental decline. It’s frustrating to no longer be able to easily do the things you once took for granted. Feelings of loneliness, changes in sleep patterns, memory lapses and a slowing metabolism are all hallmarks of the aging process that go largely unaddressed. Some can maintain their faculties through activities and relationships longer than others but it’s a certainty that our loved ones slow down and are no longer as quick or sharp as they once were. There’s no user’s manual to accompany an aging parent and as I’ve said many times, everyone’s situation is different. If ever a situation called for patience and compassion, this is it. If ever a situation called for a community, this is it.
Cognitive decline can manifest itself in many ways and some are able to mask the extent of their decline. Watch for everyday activities that become more challenging for them such as cooking and misplacing things such as wallets and purses. The frequency and intensity of severe weather events places many of the elderly at increased risk.
Explaining what’s happening might be tedious but, a quick explanation and clear, simple instructions go a long way to ensuring that they’re not working against you or worse, wandering off in a state of confusion. Your preps should include things such as adult diapers, bed pads, a favorite throw blanket and changes of clothes that are easy to put on.
Time is not on our side. We’re given what we’re given and not a second longer. Careful planning can’t necessarily give us more time but it can make the time we have more meaningful.