Having the talk with a family member

October 3, 2016

The message on my voicemail was simply, “Call me when you can, I have a question to ask you.”

The caller was my aunt, just turned 70, who has relocated from the Northeast to the Southeast. She never married, and has no children. I’m the oldest in my generation, live the closest, and have expertise in aging issues by virtue of working at Iona for the last three years.

My assumption was that she wanted to ask me if I would be her decision maker if her health or memory ever failed enough where she needed help. So, I figured I should get ready.

Iona’s Director of Development and Communications Susan Messina as a young girl.
Iona’s Director of Development and Communications Susan Messina as a young girl.

Prior to joining Iona, I worked for seven years in fundraising for hospice. As a result, I feel I know a great deal about end-of-life decision making. I knew that people often needed help getting those conversations started and was a fan of Ellen Goodman’s Conversation Project and the excellent book, The Other Talk, by Tim Prosch, published by AARP. Both are top-notch resources that provide insights into how to engage family members in tough discussions about end-of-life wishes. I knew about advance directives (healthcare power of attorney and a “living will”) through the excellent resources offered by the National Healthcare Decision Day initiative and the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.

But, from working at Iona I also knew that for most people, death often follows years of illness, memory loss, physical frailty, or dwindling financial resources that pose significant challenges to older people themselves and, ultimately, their caregivers

So, I went to one of Iona’s geriatric care managers and asked her what else I should be prepared to discuss with my aunt, if this call were indeed the request I was anticipating. I learned that there was a lot more I needed to cover with my aunt and I needed to discuss a range of issues related to her finances. These included a general sense of her finances for long term care planning and a financial power attorney (POA).

The financial POA could be set up immediately, while my aunt is fully capable. Or, she could choose to use “springing language” in the document that would indicate that when doctors declare she no longer has the capacity to make financial decisions, the POA would go into effect.

We also discussed the value of my aunt and me potentially setting up joint accounts, so that both my name and hers would be on the accounts. In emergencies, a joint account would allow me to easily pay her bills. Down the line, I could also spot check her balances, if we felt that was necessary. I learned that one of the first capacities to be compromised by memory loss or cognitive decline is money management, and these simple changes can make a big difference.

So, armed with information and the desire to be a helpful niece, I called my aunt back, steeled for what could be an awkward conversation.

When Susan Messina received a voicemail from her aunt (pictured in this great vintage photo), she immediately jumped into action, consulting with one of Iona’s geriatric care managers.

And guess what? To my surprise, her question was NOT about whether or not I would play these crucial roles! It was about a much more mundane piece of family business. I had to laugh. But, since I was all teed up, I took the plunge. I said, “Well, I thought you were going to ask me if I would help you with financial and medical affairs down the line.”

Fortunately, my aunt was really glad I had raised the issue. She hadn’t really thought through all of those issues and was happy to have been given the opening to address them. I’m impressed with her; she immediately called her lawyer and her financial advisor to get balls rolling, and I know we will continue to talk about next steps as they come up.

I’m grateful that her mysterious “Call me back” message got me thinking and she told me she’s very glad we had the conversation. Even more so, though, I’m grateful that my time at Iona has taught me so much about the challenges—and opportunities—of aging.

By Susan A. Messina

Susan is Iona’s Director of Development and Communications. She holds three master’s degrees, including two from Bryn Mawr’s Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research, and is a Certified Fund Raising Executive.

One thought on “Having the talk with a family member”

  1. I am 79 going on 65 and in full capacity of everything. However, I have done all the things Susan is prepared to do for her aunt. My eldest daughter is on my bank accounts, a “member” of my LLC, Betsy Bell’s Health4U, she has durable power of attorney and is on my Advanced Directive to physicians. I set this up years ago, adding bits as needed, because I am always jetting off somewhere exciting and could have an accident which would render me unable to handle things. I also have sent her instructions about passwords on my various and many web accounts, instructions as to where my will is located in my office. She has filed all these things away in a file titled, hum, I know not how she refers to me in her system. Ha, that’s something I’ll ask her when I next see her. I and my 4 daughters have had many conversations about death and the dying process. Recently they asked me where and how I wanted to be buried. As a result of that conversation, my youngest daughter and I hiked the trail near Mt. Rainier where I have asked them to scatter some of my ashes, enjoying the serenity of the place and picking out several spots large enough to hold a lot of family members of all ages (assuming some great grandchildren by then). It was a lovely day just prior to major surgery. You never know with those medical events. I recommend these steps to everyone. Betsy Bell

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