Communicating about Death Before Last Rites are Needed

Most of what happens in life is, simply put, beyond human control. Expect the unexpected, they say, because it is impossible to plan for everything.

Larry Houk, an Alexandria resident and lawyer who practiced real estate and elder law for 44 years, has seen the peace that comes from “preparing for the worst and hoping from the best.” He knows that peace so well that he wrote the book on it — literally. This year, he combined his expertise with that of his longtime friend and writing partner, Kenneth O. Doyle – a Minnesota-based psychologist and financial planner – to write “Peace of Mind for Your Aging Parents: A Financial, Legal, and Psychological Toolkit for Adult Children, Advisors, and Caregivers.”

Published in July, the book serves as an all-things-considered guide to conquering the worst-case scenarios and uncertainties that surround death.

“Nobody ever knows what’s going to happen,” Houk said. “The book is based on situations that we were both encountering in our everyday professional experiences, through which we found that there just wasn’t any written material that spoke to the biggest issues that people were looking for the answers to, which all revolve around understanding how to communicate intergenerationally; no matter what, it often involves multiple languages – literally speaking and figuratively – and different personality types. Miscommunication is the biggest barrier.”

The complexities of multi-generational communication are compounded when they induce deep emotions. Still, it’s a must to get an early start on conversations about “death planning, disability planning, planning for possible nursing home care, powers of attorney, health care directives, trusts, and more,” according to Houk. And, even though it seemed there was plenty of literature about coping with death, or preparing for it logistically, there weren’t many resources that addressed both, or that discussed solutions for communicating with relatives about these topics.

“What makes this book unique is the fact that we have combined legal, financial and psychological issues in a single source,” Houk said. “The book starts by explaining how different personality types view the world, and what it is they fear. Then, we address how it is that those fears either facilitate or hamper communication between family members and their advisers.”

At the request of their publisher, Houk and Doyle set out to provide heart and soul in this book alongside critical information.

“From the start, we wanted to integrate psychology into estate and financial planning,” Doyle said. “People differ enormously in how they react to planning problems and solutions, so we wanted to honor those differences. From our experience, we know that people won’t do what experts suggest unless those suggestions ‘fit.’ I think experts in every field experience this. Years ago, a big group of CPAs asked me to give a talk about ‘Why won’t my clients do what I say?’ The answer is, if you give them solid information that respects their personalities, they’ll happily follow it. That’s what we try to do in the book.”

“Peace of Mind for Your Aging Parents” is separated into two parts: the areas of life and financial planning that you can control, and then the elements you cannot. The authors drew upon their own experiences both as individuals and professionals to make both sections of the book both relatable and relevant.

With a progeny extending three generations – four grandchildren and two great grandchildren dispersed across the country – Houk had plenty of personal material from which to draw.

“I definitely used what I do with my own family to help form what I contributed to the book,” Houk said. “Much of what ended up in book was based on talks my wife and I have had with my kids – discussions about what type of end of life care we would want. In fact, we’re here in Alexandria in part because my youngest daughter here was most willing to chip in. It’s part of the process to see which child is willing to step up and take care of certain things, who is going to help out and in what ways at the end.”

The writers hope to inspire readers to take matters into their own hands and ensure that every relevant person knows exactly what you want, and what actions you would want carried out, for every scenario.

“You never hear someone say they ‘get’ to go to a nursing home,” Houk said. “But, if you’ve thought through your options and you made the choice for where you end up, then you get control. You can be satisfied with any result as long as you had control. And, it really is all about that control, because, on the other end of the spectrum, we are constantly losing it. We need to figure out what do we fear, and what we can do to control these fears.”

No one is any closer to knowing precisely how to come to terms with their loved ones dying. Still, you must do whatever you need to do to get your emotions in check enough to make these determinations when, in Houk’s words, it is “still theoretical and not yet practical.”

“It’s not at all savvy to think, ‘I'll just leave it to my kids to sort out,’” Houk said. “This is often problematic, because, even attempts to follow parents’ wishes can’t be successful when those wishes aren’t expressed, or when different children interpret things that had been said differently, or sometimes, even different things are said to different children, resulting in confusion. A second misconception is that only the wealthy need to make plans. Third, there is the false thought, ‘I cannot afford to plan,’ when, in fact, you cannot afford not to plan.”

Put everything in writing.

“Too many people put off planning until it is too late either because they have become incompetent or they’ve died,” Houk said. “So, it’s good to initiate a lawyer sooner rather than later. It is a lawyer’s job, after all, to think of all the worst-case scenarios. Even if you don’t think you can afford a lawyer, there are forms and services available online, so at least you leave your loved ones with some kind of direction. The biggest group of people who need to think about this but often don’t are single people. Someone inevitably has to take care of things, and you want to have a say in what to do with your remains.”

In many ways, end-of-life decision-making is all part of carrying out an empowered life.

“These are decisions you should make versus having someone make for you,” Houk said. “When you leave it for your family to take care of, things can get ugly. One case involving family members who didn’t agree on what to do with someone’s remains went all the way to the Supreme Court. It’s always developing a plan, even if it’s going online to fill out a will. Size of problems have nothing to do with the size of the estate. No matter how you do it, it should be your will. It’s about what you want, and not what the law or your sister or your kids want. What do you want?”

The book is available directly from the publisher, sales@abc-clio.com, on Amazon, or on the official website, peaceofmindforyouragingparents.com.

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