The Questions You Can’t Answer

July 12, 2016

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Your mother lives several hours away, but you and your family try to visit her several times each year. But this time, what started as a typical visit quickly introduces you to a whole new world of responsibilities and decisions.

While eating out at her favorite restaurant, your mother complains of a sudden headache and then collapses.

You call 9-1-1 and the medics arrive promptly. That’s when the questions begin.

“Has this ever happened before?”

“What medications and supplements does your mother take? How often? What is the dosage?”

“Does she have a DNR?”

“Who is her primary care doctor?”

“Do you have a Medical Power of Attorney?”

“What is the name of her insurance provider?”

Suddenly, you realize how little you know about the details of your mother’s life. You wish that you had started the conversation with her before this emergency. You have no idea where to find the information the medics are requesting, and besides, you want to stay with her, not go searching through her house to find it.

Most of us cannot imagine that the mother who sings in the church choir and cheerfully organizes dinners for the family reunion will ever lie helpless on a stretcher in the back of an ambulance. But it doesn’t take a statistician to tell us that she is getting older each day and that few people are able to completely care for themselves in their older years.

We tend to avoid discussions of illness, disability, and death because they are unpleasant or maybe we think it is bad luck to talk about such things. But it is far better to discuss essentials in advance than to scramble for life-saving information when we are already emotionally upset.

My own mother got it right. She loved me so much that she compiled a Family Notebook of information that I would need when the inevitable time came that she would need care or would graduate to heaven. She started the notebook while in her fifties, but I didn’t need it until she was in her eighties when she came to live with us. Meanwhile I had the comfort of knowing it was there whenever the need might arise.

Mother included financial, medical, and legal information that she updated regularly. She stated her preferences for her own memorial service. Everything was in order and we didn’t even require an attorney to settle her estate after she died.

Here are some tips that could save you many anxious moments with your own parents:

  • If your parents live at a distance, get acquainted with their neighbors and exchange phone numbers. If your mother doesn’t answer your calls, you will want to know someone who can check on her. A neighbor was the one who first alerted us to behavioral changes in my mother-in-law that proved to be early signs of dementia. This led to more frequent in-person visits and, ultimately, to moving her in with us.
  • Some families find it awkward to discuss legal matters and final wishes. Perhaps you and your spouse can take the lead by letting your siblings and parents know that you are gathering important information for your own Family Notebook. Encourage them to do the same.
  • Explain to your parents how grateful you will be to have all the information you need in one place if they become incapacitated, or when they die. They need not show you the details at this time if they wish to preserve their privacy, but you will be glad to have it if one of them is suddenly crippled by a stroke or heart attack and you become the decision-maker on their behalf.
  • Encourage your family members to prepare important legal documents such as a will, Medical Power of Attorney, and Durable Power of Attorney. Copies of these should be included in the Family Notebook. If these documents do not exist, the government makes all decisions regarding your loved one’s medical and financial affairs, as well as determining what will happen to any minor children. Most people would prefer that someone who knows their wishes would make those decisions, rather than a government employee who doesn’t know the family.

These are not pleasant issues to think about, but every day we spend on this planet we are growing older. Few of us will escape without requiring some type of care. Take the time to set your affairs in order and encourage those you love to do the same. Your family will commend you for it when they are the ones caring for you.

© 2016 by Marcia K. Washburn who writes from her home in Colorado. Through the years, Marcia has cared for four adult relatives in her home, and presently cares for her mother-in-law who has Alzheimer Disease. Marcia is the Assistant Director of Christian Family Eldercare. Her book, Home-Based Eldercare: Stories and Strategies for Caregivers, is available at

July 12, 2016 by Marcia Washburn

  • Visiting & Serving Seniors
  • Caring for Parents and Relatives
  • Home-based Elder Care in a Family Economy