Many families struggle to talk about topics related to death, emergency preparedness, and end-of-life concerns. No one wants to think about what would happen if they were no longer around. After all, you are busy enjoying life. Yet failing to have these conversations and make your wishes known can leave your loved ones vulnerable emotionally and financially.
Nearly 150,000 fatalities in the U.S. each year are attributed to “unintentional injury,” making it America’s fourth most-common cause of death. This includes people killed in car accidents as well as tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, and other natural disasters. If you add people who die suddenly from heart attacks or strokes, the number goes up to more than 920,000 unexpected deaths annually.
It may be many decades before anything happens to you or your loved ones – but none of us gets a guarantee. It’s important to discuss “what if” with your family. This guide can help you start the conversation and ensure that you cover all critical points.
Whether you need to make your own emergency preparation plans or want to ensure your loved ones have considered their options, the tips below are a great place to start.
Start the conversation
Often, the most difficult part about having end-of-life and emergency preparedness conversations with your loved ones is opening the dialogue in the first place. It’s natural to feel uncomfortable with topics connected with your death or the death of a loved one. You may worry that the conversation will spark fear in your family members. But with some planning, you can start the conversation so that it will be well received by those you need to talk with.
Having the conversation about yourself
One of the best ways to break the ice is to lead by example. If you need to have the conversation with your loved ones about emergency preparedness or end-of-life plans, start by sharing your preferences and what kind of safeguards you have in place. You can preface it by mentioning a recent news story, natural disaster, or doctor visit that got you thinking. By going first, you can set the stage for topics to discuss and make the setting natural and comfortable.
- Make a list of the people who need to know your plans. Who do you want to have the conversation with? While your immediate family, including any parents, children or grandchildren who are still in your life, are an obvious answer, don’t forget about others who may play a role in your end-of-life or emergency preparedness situations. Consider any close friends, siblings, financial custodians, medical providers, caregivers or faith leaders that may need to know wishes.
- Make a written outline of the important points. When having a difficult conversation, it’s easy to overlook an important point. A written outline of your most important points to cover, such as where to find your will or if you have life insurance coverage, will help ensure everything gets said. Before having the conversation, make your outline.
- Choose a time. When would be the best time to have this conversation? The answer depends on who you are talking to. Sometimes a holiday gathering, when all the family is together, works well. If you are in poor health, you may need to call a special meeting. If your family is facing any big changes, you may need to have the conversation sooner. For others outside of the family, you may need to make an appointment.
- Choose a location. Pick a place where both you and the listeners will feel comfortable. Your home, a park, or even in the car or on a walk are all good options. If you think you may feel uncomfortable looking your loved ones in the eye while having this conversation, a walk or a car ride is a good opportunity.
- Consider writing a letter. If it’s too difficult to start a face-to-face conversation, consider writing a letter to your loved one to discuss your desires and goals. This also serves as an organized, concise opportunity to outline everything they need to know.
Having the conversation about someone else
Talking about someone else’s end-of-life or emergency preparedness plans can be even more challenging, especially if the other person is not interested in having the conversation. Older family members might be reluctant to acknowledge that their health is failing. Younger family members might not see a need to think about it yet. Your partner may wish to put the discussion off for another time. In all cases, you might have to nudge your loved ones. There are strategies that can make it easier.
- Phrase the conversation so it indicates you need your loved ones help. Talking about emergencies and end-of-life issues is naturally uncomfortable. Phrase the conversation starter so that it’s clear you are looking for their help in understanding what their end of life needs and desires are.
- Consider starting with a “Bucket List” conversation. Everyone likes to talk about their “Bucket List” of things they want to do before they “kick the bucket.” This can naturally lead to a conversation about end-of-life planning, and potentially emergency planning too.
- Remind them of someone they know. Remind them of a story of someone who was not prepared and had dire consequences as a result. This might challenge them to be willing to have the conversation to avoid similar trauma for their own family.
- Be a good listener. You may not agree with the plan, but you need to listen to their goals and desires. This will help keep the conversation going.
- Know the right questions. Having the right questions to ask will help you approach this conversation with confidence. Confidence will make it easier to start the conversation.
- Keep the conversation light. No one wants to be depressed when talking with their family. Use humor to keep the conversation light, even when talking about heavy subjects.
For more information about starting the conversation, visit:
- American Academy of Family Physicians: The Conversation Project
- National Institute on Aging: What Is End-of-Life Care
- All Nurses: Can We Talk? End of Life Discussions
- Emergency Management: Take a Proactive Approach to Emergency Planning
- US News and World Report: Emergency Planning
Talk to your family about end-of-life wishes
Do you have an estate plan? Does your family know your desires for end-of-life care? If the answer to either of these questions is “no,” now is the time to find a solution. If you do have a good plan, now is the time to share what it entails with those who will be in charge of your care and your estate. Thankfully, there are a number of valuable tools at your disposal that can help you communicate your wishes and ensure they are followed after you are gone.
- Prioritize your desires. If you are having trouble prioritizing what your goals for end-of-life care are, consider the Go Wish card game. This tool is a fun, lighthearted way to get the conversation started and help prioritize what is the most important for someone as they approach the end of life.
- Be clear about your preferences for end-of-life medical care. Don’t leave your loved ones in the difficult role of having to decide whether or not to resuscitate or how long to keep life support going after you have a serious medical issue. Communicate your wishes with an advance directive. This document is a living will that states what medical treatments you desire at the end of your life.
- Appoint and communicate with your desired healthcare decision maker. You also have the ability to appoint a medical power of attorney or health care proxy, which is an individual who has the deciding vote in your medical care. When you cannot make medical decisions, the medical power of attorney or health care proxy individual will be given the power to make them on your behalf. Choose this person, and then communicate with them.
- Designate a financial decision maker with a power of attorney. In addition to appointing someone to have the power to make your medical decisions, you will want to appoint someone to make your financial decisions. This person, your power of attorney, will step in when you are deemed unable to make decisions for yourself. They will handle your finances and other decisions to ensure you do not become a victim of abuse. Choose someone you trust to care for your financial well-being.
- Put everything in writing. All of your end-of-life wishes need to be in writing. This protects your family from heartbreaking decisions if you are not able to communicate with them. It also protects against miscommunications when different family members are expressing different ideas of what your end-of-life wishes were.
- Keep the discussion factual. It’s emotionally difficult to talk about the end of life with someone you love. Instead of focusing on that, focus on the facts, which are your desires for care should something happen. Consider taking the approach that you need to get this taken care of, then go on living your life. This can help make the discussion less difficult for your family members.
- Start the conversation early. End-of-life discussions aren’t just for the elderly or the seriously ill. People can suffer serious accidents at any age, and it is important to have these conversations early. By communicating now, while you are healthy, you can protect your loved ones from difficult decisions in the future.
- Find templates to make planning the discussion and drafting documents easier. While you can use a lawyer to help you draft these end-of-life documents, you can also find templates online that can help you get started. These templates can be a good starting point for the conversation, while also giving you an initial document to work from in the future.
- Don’t neglect to talk about the will. Whether you have a last will and testament, a trust or both, make sure you discuss it with your beneficiaries. This will help reduce the chance that the will is contested after your death, and will make it easier for your loved ones to get the items you intend for them to inherit.
- Use this conversation as a chance to avoid hurt feelings. If you have a large estate, you may have loved ones who are expecting a large inheritance. Have a conversation before your death outlining your goals for your estate, the choices you have made, and your reasoning, so you don’t leave behind individuals with hurt feelings.
- Be willing to give reasons for your decisions. Your loved ones will be more likely to accept and follow the wishes in your estate planning and end-of-life documents if you explain the rationale. For example, if you choose one child over the other to be your medical power of attorney, this could cause confusion and discord. But if you explain that the chosen child lives closer and will have a more direct impact on your care, the decision will make more sense and cause fewer hard feelings.
- Keep the conversation going. You may change your estate plan or your end-of-life goals. Keep the conversation going so you can address these changes as they come. At your initial conversation, let the family know you plan to continue the conversation as it is needed.
For more information about talking to your family about the end-of-life concerns you have, consider these resources:
- CNBC: Scared to Discuss Your Will with Your Family? Here are Some Tips
- AARP: Inheritance Etiquette: Talking Things Out
- Next Avenue: Talking to a Loved One Near End of Life
- Cleveland Clinic: To Treat or Not to Treat: What Would Your Loved Ones Want at the End of Life?
- My Life Site: Do Your Loved Ones TRULY Understand Your End of Life Wishes
Talk to your family about life insurance
Life insurance helps protect your family financially if you were no longer around. If you have financial dependents, like a child or a partner who relies on your income, then it’s likely you need coverage. In addition to replacing lost income, the proceeds from a life insurance policy can help pay for the mortgage, childcare, or pay off debts you leave behind. It serves as your family’s financial safety net.
Checklist for buying life insurance
- Decide between term life and permanent life insurance. Term life is often the simplest and most affordable type of life insurance. It’s characterized by its set term lengths of coverage – 10, 15, 20 or 30 years. Term life insurance is frequently recommended by financial experts and is a cost-effective way to help financially protect your family. It can also be easily researched and applied for online. Permanent life insurance, on the other hand, comes in two varieties: whole and universal. This type of coverage lasts for a lifetime and has a cash value component. These two features are why permanent policies can cost 10 to 20 times more per month than term coverage.
- Deciding how much life insurance you need. When you are gone, you need to realize all of the costs that come with the loss. Not only do you have the lost income, but you will probably need to pay for childcare more than you do currently, you will need to plan for future college expense and you must consider the overall burden that living as a one-income family brings. Lay out all of these numbers when deciding on a life insurance amount. A common rule of thumb is to choose a policy amount that is 5 to 10 times your annual income. A life insurance calculator can also take the guesswork out of choosing a policy amount.
- Communicate the amount with your loved ones. Your spouse and any other adult beneficiaries should know the amount of your policy, the term length and the issuer of the policy. A common rule of thumb is to choose a policy amount that is 5 to 10 times your annual income.
- When talking about life insurance, focus on the benefit it provides to your family. Your spouse doesn’t want to think about life without you, so he or she may want to avoid the topic of life insurance. By focusing the conversation on the benefit that life insurance brings to the family, starting the conversation is easier. It will also make your partner more motivated to buy a policy to help protect you.
- Tie in a story you heard about someone who has died. If you’re having trouble having the conversation, bring up a recent story about someone who may have lost a spouse unexpectedly and they didn’t have life insurance. Discuss the challenges this brought to the family. This can make it easy to move into a conversation about life insurance and the need for it.
- Discuss your intent with the beneficiaries. Let your loved ones know how you would like the life insurance funds to be used. Paying down debts, handling daily living expenses, paying off a mortgage or saving for college are all excellent goals. Communicating your wishes will help you avoid mistakes and have the assurance that the money will be used well.
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Make an emergency preparedness plan for your family
Emergencies rarely come with many warnings, yet they can quickly destroy your home and leave your family in need of help. If a hurricane, tornado, fire, earthquake, flood or some other type of emergency comes your way, having a plan in place can help your family get through it. It’s not always easy to talk about emergency preparedness, both because it can be frightening to think of facing an emergency and because you may not know what to talk about. You should start by drafting a plan for your family.
- Identify the type of emergency most likely to hit your area. If you live near the coast, a typhoon or hurricane is most likely. If you live along a known fault line, an earthquake is most likely. For those in Tornado Alley in the Midwest, a tornado is the biggest threat. Areas facing drought are at risk for wildfires. Identifying the disasters likely to affect your family will help guide your conversation.
- Discuss emergency meeting spots. Choose three locations where your family should meet if there is an emergency. One should be near your home, one should be outside of your neighborhood and one should be outside of your city in the event that you have to evacuate. Make sure everyone knows where these spots are and how they can get to them in the event of an emergency.
- Pack a go-bag. A go-bag is a bag with your emergency supplies that you will grab when an emergency hits. This bag should include first aid supplies, medications, emergency contact numbers, food and water for three days, a flashlight, a battery-powered radio, extra batteries, maps, toilet paper and garbage bags. Make sure your family members know where this bag is and who will grab it.
- Don’t neglect the pet. Pets need help during an emergency too, so make a plan for them. Remember that you may not be able to take a pet to an emergency shelter, so research options like pet-friendly hotels or emergency pet shelters in your area.
- Tell everyone their role. Everyone in the family should have a role to play in an emergency. Whether it’s grabbing the go bag, taking care of the family pet or ensuring that they get themselves to safety, make sure each member of your family knows what they will need to do during an emergency. This will prevent chaos when an event happens.
- Create a contact list. Work with your family to create a paper list of contact information that you will need should there be an emergency. This might include schools, family member’s phone numbers, doctors, local hospitals and your insurance providers.
- Find an out-of-area contact. Find a contact you can reach out to that is out of the area. This person should be the one you family can turn to for family communication in an emergency. Having the person live out of your area will help you be able to get through when local communication systems are filled with people calling after an emergency.
- Make sure your emergency preparedness plan includes all members of your family. If you have pets, elderly loved ones or small children, create and communicate a plan that will include all of them.
- If you live where earthquakes are a concern, practice Drop, Cover and Hold On. The safest action to take if you are caught indoors during an earthquake is to drop to a hands-and-knees position to crawl to a sturdy table or desk for shelter, cover your head and neck and hold on to something sturdy. Practice this with your family.
- If you live where tornadoes are common, discuss the safest place inside your home to wait out a storm. This is typically a basement away from any windows or an interior bathroom inside the bathtub. Practice getting to this location quickly.
- If you are preparing for a fire, discuss the best way to get out of your home. Make sure every family member knows two ways to get out of their bedroom and to safety.
- If you’re preparing for a hurricane, talk about all of the potential risks. After the storm, you also must be prepared for flooding, electrical outages, mold, and structures that are unsafe after water damage.
Considerations for discussing evacuations
Often, disasters require evacuation so it should be part of your plan. You should also talk about evacuation with your family before the need arises. Knowing what to can make it less stressful and help ensure that everyone gets out safely.
- Know where your local emergency shelters will be. If you need to evacuate, you will need to know where to go. If the entire city isn’t evacuated, make sure you know where the shelter is and communicate that location with your family.
- Identify and communicate evacuation routes. Make sure you know at least two ways out of your community, in case the disaster blocks one route. Then, communicate the exit strategy to your entire family. Identify ways those who cannot drive or may not have access to a vehicle can evacuate.
- Make a household communication plan. Know how you will get in touch with everyone in your family first, then your extended family. Let your family know the plan so they will not be overly worried about your safety after an evacuation order.
- Discuss your reunification plan. Families may become separated during a disaster, which can lead to panic. Talk about how you will be reunited if you are separated. Discuss options like reaching out to government agencies and connecting with an out-of-area loved one to ensure you can get reunited as quickly as possible.
- Remind everyone to text, not talk, whenever possible. When phone lines are overwhelmed during and after an evacuation, texts may get through easier. Talk to your family about the best forms of communication to use after a disaster and evacuation.
For more help talking about disaster preparedness and evacuation, visit:
- FEMA: Family Communication Plan Templates
- Ready for a Wildfire: Pre-Evacuation Preparation
- Accuweather: Evacuation Checklist: How to Get Your Family out Safely in the Face of an Imminent Disaster
- A Magic Penny: Talking About Natural Disasters
- FEMA: Everyone Must Be Prepared for Emergencies
Talk to your children and elderly family members about emergency preparedness
Seniors and children have unique concerns when it comes to emergency preparedness. For children, they must understand your plan and have confidence that you are ready, yet you also must avoid frightening them with information that is too scary or detailed. For seniors, your disaster preparedness plan must include their wishes and plans for their care when their normal lifestyle is uprooted. Once you have a clear plan, it’s important to discuss it clearly, confidently, and compassionately to these two groups.
Tips for talking to children
- Make sure they know the basics. Your child should know your family’s name, address, and phone number. They should also be taught a family contact for emergencies.
- Keep your conversation with children age-appropriate. Understand your child’s developmental level and how that might affect their understanding of the disaster. Focus on having a factual, age-appropriate discussion about what potential problems could arise in your area.
- Be confident in your approach. Kids will be more fearful if you have a whispered, secret conversation than they will if you are factual and upfront with them. The more confidence you can show, the more they will trust that you are going to keep them safe.
- Don’t hide the truth from them. Hiding the truth about natural disasters will simply heighten their fear, so be willing to talk.
- Allow them to ask questions. It’s normal for kids to have questions about a disaster and your preparedness plan. When you talk to them, let them ask these and answer them truthfully and with easy-to-understand information.
- Schedule an interruption-free time to talk. This is a serious conversation, so make sure it happens at a time when interruptions are unlikely. Also, make sure the child is well rested and fed before talking.
- Teach them what they can do. Children can have roles in a disaster. Teach them personal safety measures, such as stop, drop and roll for fires, and then practice your evacuation plan. This makes the process normal and natural and will make it easier for them to be safe should a disaster strike. Older children can be given jobs like grabbing the family pet or the go bag, depending on their ages.
- Keep instructions simple. The goal of your talk with your children is to help them feel secure in what you have planned and to give them some basic things they can do to contribute to the family’s safety. The actions you give your children need to be quite simple because in the height of an emergency they are going to have trouble following detailed instructions. That said, even a child as young as 5 can understand how to call 911 and ask for help, and older children can be given a simple task to complete as you prepare to leave your home.
- Use books to help children understand what may happen. Books make children feel like they better understand what is going to happen. Books can also give children the chance to ask more questions, which can help alleviate their anxieties.
- Get your own anxieties under control before talking to your kids. Children are incredibly perceptive. Before talking to yours about disaster potentials, get your own anxieties under control. You must take care of your own emotional well being before you reach out to try to help your child.
- Help your child assemble a ‘get ready’ kit for kids. If you know a disaster is coming and you may need to evacuate, help your child pack a backpack or container with some books, crayons, coloring things, favorite toys, games, cards, puzzles, and any other items that might make the child feel safe.
- Give your child the family contact information. Make sure your child has your out-of-area contact person’s information, so if you are separated they can get back to you as quickly as possible.
- Don’t give false assurances. Every parent would love to tell their kid that a natural disaster could never happen, but this is not truthful. Natural disasters happen, and your child needs to know what to do when one does. Keep your discussion accurate, and avoid trying to sugar coat the truth. However, don’t delve into the scariest details either.
- Focus the conversation on safety, not risk. Disasters are risky. That’s why you need to be prepared, but you don’t need to frighten your children. Make the focus of the conversation on safety and how to stay safe, rather than the danger presented by the disaster.
- Let your children guide the discussion. When possible, allow your children’s questions to guide the discussion. This will show you how much they are ready to handle.
For more advice on talking to children about disaster preparedness, visit:
- Office of Human Services, Emergency Preparedness & Response: Early Childhood Disaster-Related Resources for Children and Families
- Totally Unprepared: How to Talk to Your Children About Earthquakes
- Huffington Post: 15 Children’s Books on Disasters, Weather and Worry
- WebMD: Talking to Your Kids About Disasters
- Hand in Hand Parenting: Talking to Your Child About Disasters
Talking to seniors about disaster preparedness
If you have elderly parents, grandparents, or other relatives, you know how important it is to ensure that senior loved ones are prepared for a disaster. Yet these conversations are not always easy to have. Many seniors do not want to think about frightening events beyond their control and the disruption it could cause. It’s important to be understanding but persistent to ensure that your senior relatives are protected.
- Talk with your elderly family member’s doctor. If you are allowed, start by talking to your loved one’s doctor to see what type of care is needed. If you need to evacuate, you will need this information.
- Learn about the daily care routine for your loved one. Talk to care providers to learn what type of care your loved one will need should they end up displaced. Talk to your loved one about their preferences and desires as well, so they can have a say in how their care will be handled.
- Encourage your loved one to talk about their feelings and needs. Remember that many times elderly individuals will not want to express their feelings because they will not want to be a burden. Encourage your loved one to express their needs so they will be as comfortable as possible before, during, and after a disaster.
- Talk about evacuation. The elderly often do not want to evacuate because they do not like having their daily lives disrupted, but you will need to prepare them for this possibility. Those who need extra care should be among the first to evacuate, not the last, so have the conversation early. Make sure the seniors in your life know how to evacuate their home and their community safely should they need to.
- Talk about medication. Make sure you know all of the medication your loved one takes, and have at least a month of extra supplies on hand. Getting prescriptions refilled after a disaster is often challenging.
- Discuss special care needs. Things like walkers and wheelchairs can make evacuation difficult. Have a frank discussion with your loved one about the potential special care needs they might have, and make sure your disaster preparedness plan includes accommodations for these.
- Enlist the help of others. Caregivers, neighbors, and members of the community who live near an elderly individual may need to assist in the event of a disaster. Discuss your concerns and your loved one’s needs with them before a disaster strikes so you will be prepared and have the necessary help in place.
- Communicate the changes that may take place. Make sure your loved one is able to understand the changes that may take place after a disaster. Often, simply knowing that you have a plan will help your loved one to feel safe and less anxious.
For more information about talking with your loved one while developing a disaster relief plan, visit:
- Public Health Emergency: Disaster Preparedness Planning for Older Adults
- CDC: Emergency Preparedness for Older Adults
- Administration for Community Living: Emergency Preparedness
- Center for Medicare Advocacy: Disaster Preparedness and Response: The Special Needs of Older Americans
- The Red Guide to Recovery: Preparedness for the Elderly
Emergency and end-of-life conversations are challenging, but necessary
Talking about emergencies and having end-of-life discussions are not easy tasks. However, if you are empowered with the right information and know how to approach these conversations, they can be positive experiences for you and your family. Take the time to make a plan, approach the conversation at the right time and keep your attitude positive. With the right preparation, and with the tips in this guide, you have the tools and knowledge you need to start the conversation off on the right foot.
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Haven Life Insurance Agency (Haven Life) does not provide tax or legal advice. This material has been prepared for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide tax or legal advice. You should consult your own attorney or tax professional.
Individuals involved in the estate planning process should work with an estate planning team, including their own personal legal or tax counsel.