How can I get my mother to talk about end of life planning?

3 answers | Last updated: May 25, 2017
A fellow caregiver asked...

I am one of five living children and I am the primary caregiver for my  mother, but she is hard to live with. She's somewhat independent, headstrong, and mean at times. I try to appease her, to make her happy, but she never wants to talk about the end of life. I have not been able to get her to sign a power of  attorney, living will, or anything. How do I approach her without making her angry? My brothers are out of town, and my sister is hard to reach. I am married and it's weighing on the family.

Expert Answers

Barbara Repa, a senior editor, is an attorney, a journalist specializing in aging issues, and the author of Your Rights in the Workplace (Nolo), now in its 10th edition.

Sometimes hidebound family dynamics can get in the way of talking about tough issues -- especially touchy end of life topics that often bring up laden thoughts such as mortality.

Take an honest look at what has you most concerned, what is causing you the greatest stress and strife for you and your other family members. It may be that one thing you really need is some time away for yourself. Depending on your mother's social and physical conditions, you may be able to get some help and hope informally by arranging for her friends and neighbors to spend time with you and spell you from your hard duties. You might also look into more formal resources in your area, such as adult daycare and respite services.

In reality, appeasing your mother and talking about end of life may just not be possible. If you haven't done it, try an honest and caring conversation about your concerns for your mother's lack of estate planning -- emphasizing that legal documents such as powers of attorney and advance directives and wills were invented to make sure that individual wishes for medical care and property management are honored by those around them. This pitch often appeals to the headstrong.

If she remains stubborn about such matters, ask for her reasons -- and really listen to them. It may be that she embraces the common fear that doing some planning for death will actually make it come sooner. Or she may know a friend who had a bad experience with a particular lawyer who was hired to help. You may find it easier to raise important issues by spending time together with a relevant book or movie, then having the discussion. You may be able to remove roadblocks this way.

Finally, given your history and living arrangement, it may simply be that you are not the best messenger for this particular message. A sibling who lives more distantly may actually be able to discuss the need for estate planning more dispassionately. Or your mother may be more able to embrace the wisdom of such arrangements when explained by a neutral third person. Local senior or community centers, for example, often offer such informational seminars; perhaps your mother would be willing to attend one, with or without you.

Community Answers

Ringboyd answered...

This was a diffcult time in my life and my mom's. What I did was make it a project for me and she was able to participate. We both made an end of life plan and signed it. She was so proud of hers and mine. Now it did take whole day so I made a fun day out of it and did not get anxious. Put on her favorite music too. That keeps Mom clam and singing, laughing and coming up with great ideas. Remember, it is hers not yours. I hope the best for you.

Dorisj answered...

I have a similar problem, but it is my sister who lives with our 96 yr old mother. She is stubborn and will not talk about legal matters with any of us (there are 5 siblings). I live 300 miles away, so maybe I can talk to her. BTW, she DID finally sign an advance directive while in the hospital for a few days recently, thanks to a kind nurse. All of us want the live-in sister to inherit Mother's property (just the house and a few acres), as she is divorced and has no other home.I will pray for you; my sister talks about the difficulties both of you are having. Best of luck!