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Identifying Your Parent’s End-of-Life Wishes: How and Why You Need to Have This Conversation

Candy in Waltham, MA
Nov. 28, 2017

As painful as it may be, it's an important conversation for you to have with your aging loved ones. Here are the topics you should cover.

Image via Getty Images/PeopleImages

According to The Conversation Project, which is dedicated to helping people express their end-of-life wishes for care, 90 percent of people feel it is important to talk to a loved one about end-of-life care, but only 27 percent actually do. While most people avoid the topic of death, talking to an aging parent about end-of-life wishes is a necessary and important conversation to have. As painful as it may be, knowing preferences makes things less complicated when the time comes.

Having a conversation with elderly parents about end-of-life wishes shouldn't be something you dread, but rather an opportunity to understand what your loved one wants. Look for opportunities to discuss end-of-life issues following the death of a family member or friend, or in casual conversation as a parent reminisces about the past. As they talk, parents may say something that opens the door for deeper discussion about how they want to be remembered or their feelings about death. While they may say something that surprises you, don't try to correct or inject your opinion. Instead, listen and gather information.

The who, when and where are important when having this conversation. If your relationship with your parents is strained, a sibling or other family member who has communicated well with them in the past may be the best one initiate the conversation. And don’t expect to cover everything in one sitting. These conversations take time and usually involve multiple discussions.

Here are some important topics that you should make sure to cover during your discussions.

Advance Directives

In order for end-of-life wishes to be carried out, preferences must not only be talked about – they also need to be backed up by legal documentation.

Advance directives are legal documents that allow a person to make clear medical care wishes. A living will includes the extent of care desired if a person is unconscious or too ill to make decisions. It may include instructions on the use of various types of life support and whether to resuscitate if breathing and heart stop. A living will serves a similar purpose to a health care  proxy, who is someone named to make health care decisions for a person who is unable to. If you are the health care proxy for a loved one, it’s important to understand what their wishes for care are.

Allowing parents to make decisions before care is needed relieves adult children of the responsibility of making those decisions at a time when emotions are high.

Types of advance directives vary from state-to-state, so enlist the help of an attorney to explain and draw up the necessary documents. Then, keep advance directives in a safe, but convenient, location and consider placing a copy on file with the hospital system your parents use.

Funeral Planning

Advance funeral planning may seem a little morbid, but it's the best way to ensure that your parents’ preferences are honored. There are many decisions to make in this process and can include: Burial or cremation, casket type, viewing of the body and visitation, type and location of funeral service, who will officiate, music selection, obituary, flowers or donations, and type of gravestone or marker.

Glenn Miller, manager at J. F. Floyd Mortuary, lends insights based on years of experience. "When Mom and Dad haven't discussed their wishes, you may end up with four or five opinions. Children think differently than parents, who are often more traditional in faith and type of funeral they want. Pre-planning, and in some cases pre-payment, ensures wishes are honored and is a great gift parents give to the family."

Wills and Other Important Documents

A Last Will and Testament defines the distribution of assets after a person's death and names someone to manage the estate until it is finalized. While your parents may have wills, they may not be up-to-date.

"Some families are argumentative or have members who are outright thieves. When there isn't a will or it hasn't been updated, conflict can occur, which delays settling the estate," says attorney William G. Wynn, Jr. "A will with bad language, for example, one that doesn't give a personal representative the authority to sell property or disburse funds, is like not having a will at all. I recommend reviewing and updating wills after any major life change."

To avoid arguments over possessions, Wynn suggests an itemized list of the objects and the intended recipients be kept with the will. Just make sure a clause in the will references the list and the person's desire for the list to be honored.

"Another option is to suggest parents go ahead and give possessions that are not in everyday use to those they choose," says Wynn. This allows parents to pass on the history of the possession to the recipient.

In additional to wills, ask parents the location of birth and death certificates, VA benefit information, bank accounts, investment information, titles to property, and life insurance policies.

In taking time to talk to parents about end-of-life wishes, you honor them and avoid difficult decisions later.


Candy Arrington has written hundreds of articles on various topics including health, caregiving, aging parents, relationships, and grief and authored When Your Aging Parent Needs Care: Practical Help for this Season of Life.


Kudos to you Candy for writing such an informative and helpful piece! I long for the day when people can have conversations like this without fear. Certainly, it's not easy to accept that our loved one will not be here one day and us as individuals too; but our nation with all its advancement is not faring well in this department (aging/end-of-life support, etc.). On the other hand, I wish that our society will encourage people to have conversations like this earlier on in life rather than waiting till golden years because anything can happen anytime. I've seen families fall apart after losing a loved one due to disagreements over how things should be done. Even minor things such as color of wreath can turn into a huge blowout because everyone has his or her own idea of what is right/wrong, etc. So, it will be great if we are able to get to a place where we can have these conversations without freaking out. In turn, it will enable more people to plan ahead and document all the necessities earlier in life: with necessary adjustments made as needs, relationships and situations change.

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