Planning for the end of life

Hospice care

Question: I am a 52-year-old single woman with no children. I have three older siblings and several nieces and nephews, although we are not particularly close (not estranged, just not close). This summer, my goal is to put in place basic end-of-life preparations like a will and a burial plan -- possibly long-term-care insurance as well. I learned from my parents' aging and deaths how much help the elderly can need, and how much stress and anxiety that can cause for those who love them. I want to protect myself, of course, but I also want to protect my nieces and nephews from the weight of (as much of) my care as possible. They hardly know me, after all, and will already have the stress of caring for their parents. Can you give me some direction before I head to a lawyer? Julia, Omaha, NE

Answer: The question you're asking is vital. I'm really glad you have a goal of dealing with end-of-life issues by the end of summer. Too many people avoid topic, which isn't fair to themselves, their immediate family, close relations or friends.

Yes, aging boomers are not only enjoying a longer average life expectancy, but they're better educated and healthier than their peers in the past. Retirement planning now focuses on ways for workers and entrepreneurs to keep earning an income on the job well into the traditional retirement years. It's a realistic expectation for many people.

Still, our faculties do eventually deteriorate, even if it's typically later in life. It's critical for an aging population to get its financial and estate planning affairs in order while still mentally spry.

You'll want to get your will updated. You should go over your financial plan, making sure you've designated all your beneficiaries.

You'll want to establish a durable power of attorney. Nolo.com has a good article on power of attorney. The power of attorney is a legal document that gives someone you choose the power to act in your place, in everything from paying bills to managing investments.

Perhaps most importantly, you want to think through and establish your advanced medical directives. A living will or advanced care directive allows you to document your wishes concerning medical treatments at the end of life. It doesn't only lay out your wishes about medical treatments, but you'll also name your medical proxy. (Everybody should do this. Don't wait.) You can learn a lot about advanced health care directives at Caring Connections. Not surprisingly, the AARP offers a wealth of information.

These are some of the things I would research before visiting an attorney. The attorney will also have critical questions for you to think about and make decisions on.

The advantage of starting the conversation early (as you're doing) is that there is less pressure on everyone. You'll want to talk with your older siblings, your relations and friends about whether they're willing to accept the responsibility of durable power of attorney and health-care advocate. I would also build into your plan with your community of friends an expectation of helping each other out as you age.

About the author

Chris Farrell is the economics editor of Marketplace Money.

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