I like puzzles. One of the ways I end a stressful day is to work on a puzzle. . .usually harbors with brightly colored boats or beautiful landscapes. Each puzzle piece works together with its neighbor to form the whole. Each piece alone can seem like little more than a colored geometric shape. More accurately, a shape that resembles an amoeba from a ninth grade slide. But when you view them together, they form a lovely scene.

Each piece of the puzzle of how to take care of mom is the same way. When I said, “Mom , we need to have your living will in place,” she looked at it like the single piece of the puzzle that it is. “I have plenty of time for that” she said. This one document, by itself, seemed very threatening to her. It was very threatening to her. Here was her youngest son giving her advice about what she had to do. Were we, her children, suddenly trying to get her ready to die? Did we know something she didn’t know? She felt rushed. Scared. And she isn’t alone.

When your dentist explains to you what it’s going to feel like, and where it might pinch or hurt, and how long it will last, you understand. You don’t necessarily like it, but you are prepared for it. After all, you made an appointment right? You drove to the dentist office, you walked in, and when you saw the man or woman in the white coat approach you in the fancy dentist chair, you were ready. The entire process prepared you for it. The appointment made intentionally, the trip, all the ‘dental trappings’ of the visit.

That’s not the way it is for many of us when we’re talking to our parents about estate planning and end-of-life planning. In fact, we often show them one piece of a puzzle (and not the big picture) like a living will (like I did!). How would you feel if, without warning one afternoon when you were at home watching your television, your dentist popped into your living room unannounced and said “Now this is going to sting a little” and then shot your gums with Novocain while he explained to you that drilling this tooth right now really is, after all, for your own good? You would not be ready for it. . .

So my first go-round with my own mother, which was more like the dentist example than I care to admit, did not go so well. She took my expertly-crafted documents and promised to look at them. Later. I had failed to impress her with my “you can trust me, I’m a lawyer” routine. And guess what. . .later never came.

After several years, when my brothers and I got up the courage to again broach the subject with each other, let alone with mom, we took a different approach. Since I’m a lawyer surrounded by two engineers, I took the lead. Mom and I talked about it. Yes, I raised the issue, and yes, that was a little uncomfortable, but I started very slowly. We talked about other family members who had XYZ problems but were able to work through them with the help of family. We talked about why I thought a living will was important. I told her some of the stories I had witnessed, first-hand, as an estate attorney. Most of my clients are over sixty-five years old, so I deal with these issues on a regular basis.

Across the span of several visits home, we continued the conversation. I had set the stage. When I felt that she was comfortable, I asked her if we could all get together to execute the living will. She said “Oh, I guess so.” It was still as uncomfortable as when the dentist says, “Okay, now open wide.” You never respond gleefully or with a “With Pleasure!”Mom’s “I guess so” was her affirmation of moving in the direction she knew she needed to go.

The events of the actual execution of the documents were somewhat comical, and perhaps for another blog posting. But, these were the initial steps we took with mom.

TAKE AWAYS? (As my pastor asks at the end of each sermon):

  • Plan ahead.
  • Don’t show one piece of the puzzle without explaining that it is only one piece of the puzzle.
  • Move ahead slowly, but by all means move ahead.