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Are Your Parents Driving You Crazy?
How to Resolve the Most Common Dilemmas with Aging Parents
by Joseph A. Ilardo, PhD, LCSW, and Carole R. Rothman, PhD

My mother won't discuss
end-of-life issues.

5. Carry out your plan.
To overcome your mother's refusal to talk about matters, it might help to let her know how this is affecting you. You might say something like this: "Mom, I know you don't want to discuss this. It's very uncomfortable for all of us. Larry and I can't force you to talk about something against your will, but we're very concerned. We know that you may not die for many years, but regardless of when it happens, we will eventually have to deal with it. When that time comes, we want to ensure that your wishes are respected, and we can't do that without knowing what they are." By openly sharing your distress and sadness at the thought of losing her, you tell her that you care and that you have the strength to address the issue of her death.

This approach is useful for three reasons:
By acknowledging her discomfort about talking, and letting her know you share that discomfort, you are reminding her that you and your brother are on the same side she is.
By admitting that you cannot force her to speak, you are showing respect for her feelings. At the same time, you are allowing her to change her mind—if only for the sake of her children—without losing face.
By being clear about why you need to know her wishes, your request will make more sense to her, and she will be more likely to comply.
Assuming that you have been successful in overcoming your mother's reluctance to talk, you can make things easier for her by listening sensitively. (Guidelines for listening appear on pages 11–12.) Have the actual documents you need on hand—forms for a living will, for naming a health care proxy, etc.—and instructions for completing them. Seeing what is actually involved may be less frightening than talking in the abstract. Give your mother time to look them over. Ask her when she would like to sign the documents and whom she would prefer as witnesses. Once she has agreed, you can then arrange for the papers to be signed, witnessed, and kept with her medical records.

6. Evaluate your progress.
You have succeeded when your mother willingly signs the necessary documents. Since she may not make the decision all at once, you can use the following milestones to chart your progress. You will know you are moving in the right direction when the following occur:
Your mother's refusal to talk about death is less insistent.
Your mother is willing to talk perhaps just a little bit and under very limited conditions.
Your mother lets you know she is willing to discuss only certain subjects (such as a "do not resuscitate" order) but not others.
Your mother starts acknowledging a range of emotions as she contemplates the end of her life.
Your mother agrees to express her preferences about end-of-life care.
If you can't get your mother to talk at all, you can strengthen your case by combing magazines, newspapers, and TV listings for stories, articles, and programs that might persuade her to reconsider her refusal. Even if you ultimately fail, you'll have made the strongest case you can. You owe it to her and to yourself to do no less.
List of ExcerptsTable of Contents

All excerpts from Are Your Parents Driving You Crazy?
Copyright 2001 by Joseph A. Ilardo, PhD, LCSW
and Carole R. Rothman, PhD

© VanderWyk & Burnham. All Rights Reserved.