Are you prepared to have this incredibly difficult conversation?

An article in yesterday’s paper stopped us in our tracks yesterday and had the whole Starts at 60 team arguing. It was a beautifully written piece by a young woman studying to become a geriatrician and she opened with this line:

“The day you meet me in the emergency department with your sick parent is likely to be one of the worst days of your life.”

Dr Ashleigh Witt eloquently describes the situation in which you might meet her, giving the scenario of your elderly mother being admitted to the hospital with pneumonia, which is on top of her existing health issues. She will ask you about your mum’s health, what’s happened to land her in hospital. And then she’ll ask how aggressively you want the doctors to treat her.

At this point, any person would probably want to say “do everything you can”. But what if that’s not what you mother wants? What if she doesn’t want endless tests, or CPR when her heart fails. If she’s unconscious at this point, it’s up to you to know what she wants.

Which depends on you having had one of the hardest conversations you can imagine – the one in which you ask your parent, or in another set of circumstances tell your children, what you want in the final years and then moments of life.

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Dr Witt says, “As doctors, we have the ability to keep a person alive indefinitely. If our lungs fail, we can put a tube down your throat and have a machine breathe for you. If your kidneys fail, we can attach you to a machine that filters the toxins from your blood. We can even mimic the function of the heart. We can fill your veins with tubes and lines and attach you to life support.

“If the patient in front of me is 21, we usually do all of those things. If the patient in front of me is 101, I probably would do none of those things and focus on their comfort.

“Every other patient falls somewhere along that spectrum, and tonight, I need you to tell me about your mum so we can work out where she fits.”

Here at Starts at 60, some of us wanted to stick our fingers in our ears and sing “la la la” when faced with the prospect of talking to our parents about the end of their life and what they might want. Others felt moved to find the courage to have the conversation.

In closing her moving piece, Dr Witt urges everyone, “Please have this talk this week, regardless of whether your parents are 60 or 100. Your future self will thank you for it.”

Have you had this conversation with your children or parents? Is it something you are afraid of? Share your stories to help others.