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Starting 'The Conversation'

A close friend, Emily, called yesterday deeply worried following a visit to her parents. The “amazing” 75-year-olds from her last visit had begun to show frailty. It was little things that unnerved her.

She had watched her father miss a rung in a ladder and almost fall. Her mother's hands had developed a tremor, and she'd burned herself on the stove. Emily didn't know whether to say anything, and if so, what. She was relieved to get home and “not have to deal with it for now.”

My mind went straight to another friend, Larry, who spent Christmas in the hospital ICU with his dad in a coma on a ventilator after a seemingly routine illness morphed without warning into kidney failure and stroke. Larry’s dad is only 60. Until the ambulance arrived, he was a businessman and avid golfer. It had never occurred to Larry that they should start talking about his dad’s wishes in the event of a crisis like this. And now he was distraught at having to make medical decisions for his dad in a vacuum.

We can spend hours planning who will bring what to Christmas dinner, or how to celebrate New Year's. But talk about our inevitable last chapters and how to manage them? We don't know how to break through what feels like a taboo. Yet avoiding these tough conversations makes the final decades of life more challenging than they already are. My heart aches for Emily and her parents, and for Larry.

I am so grateful to my own parents for initiating conversations about the hard questions with my three siblings and me, and way earlier than any of us thought they needed to. Mom and dad were only 62 and about to volunteer full-time in Alaska. They wanted us to know their wishes if something happened during their “crazy” and “dangerous” (or so we thought) adventure.

After that they routinely updated us on their wishes. When dad at 71 hit his head and went into a coma, mom already knew what he would want and she implemented his wishes with our blessings. When mom was diagnosed with leukemia at 92, she got her wish — a gentle last month — and none of us children wasted precious time together urging her to “keep fighting.”

Talking about these crucial matters is painful at first. I remember trying to brush my parents' concerns away; I felt embarrassed to be talking with them about their inevitable decline and death. But once The Conversation starts, it becomes easier to update over coffee or on periodic “check in” phone chats. Then when the crisis hits, we have a head start in tackling difficult and confusing decisions.

We need to document our wishes, but the most important first resource is an index finger dialing our parent’s (or adult child’s) phone number and saying, “Can we talk? We need to start 'The Conversation.' ”

Priscilla Weaver raises heritage sheep in the Little Applegate River Valley.