How do I talk to my elderly father about dying?

6 answers | Last updated: Dec 03, 2016
A fellow caregiver asked...

How do I talk to my 80+ year-old father about dying?


Expert Answers

Martha Clark Scala has been a psychotherapist in private practice since 1992, with offices in Palo Alto and San Francisco, California. She regularly writes about grief and loss, the necessity of self-care, and substance abuse. Her e-newsletter, "Out on a Limb," is available to subscribers through her website.

You will need to tap into your own experience and instincts on this. Some people anticipating their death--either due to illness, injury, or age--want to talk about it. Some people really don't. Sometimes it's necessary to have these types of conversations whether the person wants to or not. However, it's generally best if you honor your father's comfort level.

You might wonder how you can gauge his comfort level without bringing up the topic. Think about your experiences throughout your life with your father. Has he been someone who likes to talk about things happening in his life? Has he been open about his past, his life, medical issues, feelings? If so, he's more likely to be open to talking about dying than the type of father who is either very formal with his kids and doesn't discuss anything of a personal nature or someone who has in some way been formidable--unavailable, difficult temperament, not in touch with his feelings.

Spend some time thinking about what you specifically want to discuss and accomplish in the conversation. Do you want to know how your father feels about his impending death? Do you want to know what his wishes are for medical care and intervention? Disposition of his body? Funeral or memorial service? His directions estate planning? For example, if you realize that your primary questions relate to what your father's wishes are for his medical care, then you would tailor your question to increase the odds of getting a satisfying answer.

Finally, consider how might you broach the topic. Unless you are from a family with extremely open lines of communication, just asking a challenging question with no build-up might yield less helpful results or answers.

Consider a preface that would introduce the topic and help you assess your father’s readiness and willingness to discuss. For example, "Dad, I've got something I'd like to discuss with you. I'm not sure if you want to talk about it with me, but I just thought I'd ask. Are you comfortable talking about death and dying?" Or "Are you comfortable talking about (fill in the blank)?" By bringing up the topic this way, you give your father permission to say: "No, I'm not ready" Or" "Maybe; it depends on what you want to ask." Or "Yes, ask away."

Understand though, that by asking about his willingness to discuss dying, you must be prepared to handle and respect the response: yes, no, or maybe.


Community Answers

A fellow caregiver answered...

Why do you need to talk to your father about dying? Is it to get his affairs in order? Is it for closure for yourself? If it is an affair issue, just say :Dad do you have any special wishes or requests when your time comes? Do you have a will?" If he is not the type to want to hear that or is in denial--let it Go. Death will come for everyone--whether they want to entertain it or not an it will take them--whether they are ready to leave or not.

NIKE: "Just do it"


Practical answered...

Thankfully, my now 92-year old father had the foresight to prepare a simple will and have it witnessed and notorized. Hopefully, his wishes will be honored without legal difficulties. He also made a list of items he'd like his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren to have after his death, whether they really want them is up to each individual. He surrendered his driver's license when AMD set in, and sold his car, so I don't have to worry about him running somebody over. He's pretty straightforward about the prospect of dying, and stated he hopes he "dies in his sleep", and feels he's lived too long. I'm determined that he stay in his home where he's familiar with every nook and cranny, free to do as he chooses, while I'm handling everything else. When he complains that he's too old and can't do anything, I remind him of the unfortunate patients in the state-run nursing facility that are often medicated, and/or tied to their beds and have no "freedom" to do anything else. We've talked about it openly, and with a modicum of humor. He's unafraid and realistic. What concerns me is that when the time comes, I'll be the one to "lose it". In reality, he could outlive me, and my concern would be that some relative will step up that's never been involved in his care, and dump him where he shouldn't be.


Seanymph007 answered...

My 76 year old father refused to talk about death/dying despite ther numerous medical procedures that he wasn't expected to live thru. My mother became angry and very resentful that he wouldn't discuss it over the years. I recently moved home to spend some time with him while I could; I tried to discus it, but he always changed the subject. When he was hospitalized again recently, I brought up the subject, and he was still reluctant to discuss it. It became obvious to me that he simply could not face his own death. I told him all about my ideas/desires/views about death/funerals, which were very strange/unusual to him/his culture, and it startled him. I told him how important it was for us (a family of 5 opposites) to honor his wishes, but we had no idea what they might possibly be (because we weren't raised in the US; and we all seemed to be from different planets too)! I reminded him that my mother would just do things her way (cremation), which was incompatible with his religious beliefs; and that his kids had totally different perspectives entirely; and that none of us wanted to do battle, or feel lost/dumbfounded about his "last wishes".

I made a list of the various issues, and he agreed to think about them and discuss it tomorrow. That same day his doctor pulled me aside and told me it was time to make final preparations now. I told the doctor that he was in total denial, and had not yet faced the reality of dying, and I asked if he could help us get the issues on the table...

The doctor was so great... he spent about 10 minutes discussing Dads current 'reality' and the assorted issues/choices; then he asked Dad to make a decision about life support (being on a ventilator long term, hospice etc.), so he could put it in the medical records in case he was off-duty and Dad took a turn for the worse. Meanwhile the Doctor disclosed his personal feelings that a natural death was his ideal, especially when considering quality of life issues, family suffering, finances, pulling the plug later, etc. Then doctor pulled open the curtains and pointed to all the 'unconscious' patients on ventilators...

Upon hearing this from the doctor, Dad was finally able to make most of the decisions right then and there, saying he'd discuss the rest with my mother that afternoon. I took notes on everything he said and called my mother so they could talk about it. They decided on Hospice care when the time came; first at home for as long as comfortable, then a hospice center or nursing home. Dad is still with us, and tommorow he will go visit his brother who now on his death bed as of yesterday... hopefully he can help their family discuss their final plans, which they haven't been able to face to date... Prayers and blessings going out to everyone facing this situation/discussion...


A fellow caregiver answered...

My 89 year old Father was a Brilliant scientist and Bronze Star WW2 Vet, though he CAN be hard on those around him. I am the only son and moved back home to take care of him, because he begged me to. He is All TOO Eager to discuss the End, he does so multiple times over the past year, and I Do admit I get irritated with him for it. I'm not sure if he has AD, but he certainly is depressed and no longer works on his finances on his desk (which is Good because he does not get agitated when he makes mistakes)

Last year, he got Shingles in late February and thought he was "going" then (and I agreed-it's TERRIBLE, make sure your relatives get that shot!!) Then some Diverticulitis issues which continue to this day. I work part time in medicine, and take him to Doctors. I have not even unpacked my boxes yet, and have quite a bit of money that is not getting invested because of his needs. I also have no friends or famly here, same for Dad. He DOES want me to meet people. I am getting old at 54. I am in the process of typing up some end of life stuff, and will give it to him to have at his bedside. He does spend a Lot of time in Bed, which is not Good for him, but, at 89, what can you Do?? His Old (in every Sense of the Word-HIS age-lol) primary medical Doctor did prescribe physical therapy and I shlepped him there last April and May with some improvement. I got him a compact stationary peddle bike which he does not use. He frequently is nauseated and has lower abdominal cramps. Other than decreased kidney function, his labs may be Better than Mine! I know this was long-winded, especially for a Dude, but how do YOU folks deal with all this Drama??


A fellow caregiver answered...

Correction no family SAVE for Dad. He has relatives overseas that we recently visited. Some cousins from my Mother's side visited here last June. He has a ladyfriend who occasionally comes over or we all go to a classical music concert-but he rarely feels well enough anymore