Insights & News

December 2015
Estate Planning

The Hardest Conversation

Talkin’ Death Blues

It all started with a conversation. Early Retiree told his father August, “Dad, your sister Joy wrecked her car.”

August was headed to the mailbox and stopped and turned, “What happened?”

Early continued, “It seems she ran the car alongside a lamppost in a parking lot, and the car has a large scrape down the length of the passenger side.”

“Oh no,” said August, somewhat relieved that no one was injured. He smiled. August always thought how appropriate it is that his “pillar of the community” sister drove a Civic.

“Well Dad, the bad part is she didn’t know she did it. A police officer happened to see Joy hit the post and stopped her. When the policeman told her what happened she said, ‘I was wondering what that noise was.’”

Early let the news sink in. August is 90 years old and Joy is 88. The news led to two conversations.

The first happened two days after the accident. August asked Early to sit down. In the conversation that followed, August gave Early his car keys. It was the conversation Early wanted to have for a long time. But, he knew he could not confront his father. August’s doctor told Early that bones softened as you get older. Early wondered, “Why then did he become more hard-headed every year?”

Early’s financial planner, Fioni AdVisor, had told him that most often the decision for an elderly parent to give up car keys has to come from the parent. The best a child can to do is guide them to the decision. Fortunately, August’s sister and her fender-to-door-to-door-to fender bender opened up that opportunity.

The second conversation involved August’s end of life care – a conversation much more difficult than car keys. Ellen Goodman, a Pulitzer Prize winning former syndicated columnist, says surveys show that 90% of Americans think this is an important conversation and only 30% have it. Of course, no one wants to talk about death. Kids deny their parents will die and parents don’t want to worry kids.

Atul Gawande writes in his bestseller, Being Mortal, “As recently as 1945, most deaths occurred in the home. By the 1980s, just 17 percent did... across not just the United States but also the entire industrialized world, the experience of advanced aging and death has shifted to hospitals and nursing homes.”

Doctors and hospitals can keep people alive a long time and there is always one more treatment or procedure to try. But, at some point the patient ceases to exist. The conversation has to be - when is enough.

Gawande recounts a conversation with a patient about her husband:

“She told him, ‘I need to understand how much you’re willing to go through to have a shot at being alive and what level of being alive is tolerable to you.’ We had this quite agonizing conversation where he said—and this totally shocked me—‘Well, if I’m able to eat chocolate ice cream and watch football on TV, then I’m willing to stay alive. I’m willing to go through a lot of pain if I have a shot at that.’”

Gawande’s own father said he didn’t think eating ice cream and watching football was enough for him. Being with people and interacting with them was what he cared about most.

August? An engineer, he wants to understand the world around him. He wants to walk, he wants to be outside. He does not want a feeding tube.

Still, how do you have that conversation? Ellen Goodman never had the conversation with her mother. After her mother’s death at age 92, Ellen started a non-profit, The Conversation Project, to help others have the discussion. In a July 1, 2015, New York Times op-ed column she noted, “What I have learned is that the conversation is also a legacy. This is the gift, maybe the last gift, we can give one another.”

Resources: Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

If you have elderly parents, are a member of the sandwich generation, or have a financial planning question, contact Mark Stinson at or 410-715-9200.

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