Though we hope that death comes quietly to beckon our parents home, reality is often bracingly different. Not long after my father turned 80, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. COPD had already taken a toll, limiting him to approximately 15 minutes of physical activity at a stretch. Hoping to beat the cancer, he reluctantly agreed to radiation and hormone treatments.
It was humorous to commiserate with my father about hot flashes. Whenever we talked on the phone, he asked, “How do you deal with them? They’re so awful!” At that point, he had no idea the hot flashes would be the least of his problems.
My husband and I are among the 20 million adults in the sandwich generation: simultaneously parenting our own children and caring for aging parents. We’re signing permission slips for our teenager’s field trips alongside do not resuscitate (DNR) orders for our parents.
Few of us are prepared for the physical, spiritual, and emotional challenges of this season. Too often, we defer to health care professionals to decide what’s best for our parents. But a doctor who has not previously met them may not know what’s best. That’s why we need to have candid conversations with our mothers and fathers about the end of their lives—before a crisis hits.
After my father was diagnosed with cancer, he was willing to talk about the practical aspects of his final years, including his health care plan and how to pare down his belongings. Above all else, he wanted to finish life in his home, where he lived for almost 60 years.1