When I’m not writing for the Journal, my day job is helping organisations with digital. A lot of the time my clients’ work is perfectly commendable, but not always very noteworthy.
Then sometimes I’m absolutely blown away. This is one of those times.
Who among us has an elderly relative, or who has lost someone, with whom we never talked about death? I have two nonagenarian grandparents and we’ve never had the conversation.
To my discredit, I’ve actually shut my gran down when she’s tried to broach the subject. I’ve told myself I need to stop her getting into a negative, pessimistic frame of mind. In reality I’ve probably been trying to subconsciously shield myself from the knowledge that at some point I’m going to lose her.
As unnatural and awkward as it feels, it’s actually a really positive thing to talk about death.
There are lots of practical reasons. Do you know what music they want at their funeral? Do you know what they want to happen to any heirlooms that may not be mentioned in the will? Fighting over inheritance can tear families apart.
There’s also the health and wellbeing dimension to consider. What happens if the older person becomes unable to make or communicate their own choices and decisions? When it comes to the end, would they prefer to be in a hospice or at home?
Not knowing what the person would want either before or after death can leave families and professionals to make agonising choices.
This week the older people’s charity Independent Age is launching a campaign to encourage all of us to break the taboo surrounding death.
Corinne Sweet, psychologist, author and broadcaster, commented: “People find death a difficult topic to discuss as it usually brings up a lot of feelings of anxiety, fear, awkwardness or sadness.
“So it’s no surprise, as a culture, we prefer to pretend that it’s not going to happen. But when it does, we are thrown by the strong emotions it brings up. That’s why it’s incredibly important for all generations to talk about death – ahead of time – so that feelings can be faced, processed, relationships set straight and any final wishes are shared.”
Janet Morrison, chief executive of Independent Age, added: “It’s understandable that many people struggle to talk about death and final wishes. It’s an incredibly emotive topic and unsurprisingly, people don’t always know how to broach the subject.
“The older you get the more aware you are of death. But wouldn’t it be helpful if we could all be more open and share our final wishes earlier, so our later years can be filled with positivity, rather than awkward conversations?”
While working with Independent Age, I’ve been incredibly moved by some of the stories of bravery, fearlessness and resourcefulness displayed by older people who have experienced bereavement.
As a younger person there is support available if you lose someone. Even at retirement age there are professional services in place to help individuals come to terms with bereavement.
When you’re 80 that support isn’t there anymore. It’s as if death becomes expected – part of life. Of course, it doesn’t seem like that to the older person. Their loss is just as real and present as it would be to someone half their age.
If you can identify with this subject you may be one of the thousands of local people who could benefit from talking about death.
Independent Age has put together a few tips to help.
Don’t avoid the subject. Saying something is always better than saying nothing.
Be sensitive. Think about how you’ll introduce the subject. Maybe prepare them in advance. Let them feel in control of communicating and try not to push them in a particular direction.
Make a list. Write down everything you need to discuss. There might be a lot to cover and it can be hard to remember everything when you’re talking about an emotional subject.
Make sure they know their options. The person you’re talking to may not be aware of their choices. Do your research. Things like the different types of power of attorney are important to understand. An advance statement can record a person’s preferences for how they would like to be taken care of.
It’s never too soon to start planning. Planning for the end of life doesn’t just have to be for older people. Would your family know what you would want if something happened?
Many bereaved people say that one of the hardest emotions to deal with is regret. Avoid putting off difficult conversations until it’s too late and we could all save ourselves a lot of pain and angst further down the line.
If you need help or advice on any of the issues in this article visit the Independent Age website or call their advice line on 0800 319 6789.
Alex Lister lives in Canterbury and is standing for the Liberal Democrats in the Canterbury North by-election on November 15th.