Discussing Death and Life Expectancy

We all know it’s coming, but we don’t like acknowledging it as it approaches: all life ends in death. Often times we want to be like an ostrich and shove our head in the sand when conversation gets too close to the subject of death and life expectancy. But it is important to openly discuss life expectancy and death issues with our aging loved one.

Benefits of Discussing Life Expectancy and Death

In the December 8, 2011 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Alexander Smith recommended that physicians needed to be more direct when discussing life expectancy with patients. Doctors, as a matter of standard procedure, take life expectancy and general health issues into consideration before recommending treatment. Dr. Smith recommends extending that same knowledge to patients. By honestly telling patients their probable life expectancy, it empowers the patient to make better informed medical and life decisions. A person who expects to live for 15 years will make very different decisions from a person who expects to live for 15 months.

If, at 85, you are told that you are in wonderful health and your body could last another 10-15 years, you will make very different decisions about finances, preventative health, travel, etc. than the 85 year old who is told that their body is declining and will not last much longer. Being aware of life expectancy is all about being empowered to make the best decisions possible for your condition.

Discuss Death and Life Expectancy Before it is an Issue

One way to make it easier to discuss death and life expectancy with your aging loved one is to talk about it before it becomes an immediate issue. Find out how they want to handle those future discussions. Do they want to openly talk to you and the doctor about their life expectancy? Or would they rather not know and/or talk about how their prognosis affects their life expectancy? Don’t worry if your aging loved one would rather not discuss such issues. For some there are cultural taboos or emotional reasons for avoiding the discussion. Open the discussion but do not force it.

If you missed the opportunity to have an early discussion with your aging loved one, it is probably better to assume that they want to know their life expectancy and discuss it. Then they have the opportunity to either discuss the issue with you or tell you that they would rather not discuss it. By opening it up for discussion you are giving your aging loved one a chance to talk about something that may be weighing heavily on their mind but that they are too afraid to discuss.

Ways to Discuss Life Expectancy and Death

Discussing life expectancy and death requires grace and tact. Remember that very few people want to constantly contemplate their own mortality. There will be days and times when they will not want to talk about it. They will also probably not desire to talk about death very frequently. Always be open to conversations they initiate but never force the discussion when they do not desire to discuss issues of death.

Your aging loved one’s doctor may not follow Dr. Smith’s recommendations. Don’t be reticent about asking the doctor directly about the prognosis and life expectancy. You and your loved one deserve to have the best information available to make the most informed decisions possible.

Talking about death with those we love can be a daunting proposition, but these discussions can help you both make better decisions regarding future treatment and personal issues. Taking the time to have the difficult discussions will provide a great benefit to you and your aging loved one.