The Value of a Committee-of-One in Late-Stage Life Planning

By Rich White

The time has come for the children to gather round the dining room table and talk about Mom’s future, now that Dad is gone.

“Mom feels alone living in a big house without Dad,” says one. “She stares out the window all day, watching the bird-feeder, feeling trapped and depressed. She should be living in a community.”

“But assisted living costs a lot of money,” says another. “And it will keep getting more expensive as her health declines.”

“With the money Dad left her, Mom can afford it.”

“But if she starts spending down money, we would need to redo her will, to keep everything equal.”

“What about her car? How long can she keep driving? What’s it worth, anyway?”

“The house is more important. She should sell it. We can split up the money and use it to help her.”

“Look, Mom is starting to lose her memory. It’s hard to get her to do anything.”

Many ideas are thrown around the table, but nothing is decided. The children go back to their homes and jobs. Mom goes back to staring out the window, watching the birds.

What’s wrong with this picture?

All of these issues are important in late-stage life planning for Mom or Dad. It’s great the family cares enough about Mom to work together as a committee. But the committee perspective is wrong.

The problem is that Mom is not sitting at the table. Important decisions must be made in time, before Mom spirals downward (mentally or physically), options narrow, and costs increase.

If Mom can participate in these decisions, she should. Taking charge of one’s own late-stage life planning is empowering – much like the choice of whom to marry or when to have children. In any case, Mom’s desires and needs should hold forth at the table.

One or more family members should serve as her advocate, arranging her options and guiding her own decisions. Then, actions should be taken in anticipation of where Mom is going with her life and health, not where she is now. Late-stage life planning is a dynamic process. Soon enough, her needs will change.

How the Perspective Changes

The idea is to form a committee-of-one for late-stage life planning. The “one” is the person living through this important phase of life. The goal is to maximize that person’s quality of life within his/her available resources, for each remaining day of life. All choices and decisions should be made through this person’s eyes, with his/her best interest at heart.

Now, let’s look again at Mom’s options through these eyes.

  • Community living – What are her concerns and fears about community living? What help does she need to address them? Who will help her downsize possessions and sell the house, so she will have enough money to afford a community and its amenities?
  • The will – The primary goal is to make Mom’s money last as long as she does. She needs a will, but it could change several times in the future based on her assets, needs and wishes. While important decisions are being made by Mom, family should “just chill” about shares of her will. The late-stage is full of surprises.
  • The car – Does Mom want to keep driving? Is she safe behind the wheel? Personal transportation can be empowering in the last stage, so these questions may need to be asked periodically, while continuing to discuss with Mom how she feels about driving.
  • The house – Family memories and sentiments stick to the walls of houses. Yet, houses can create huge weights of responsibility that hang over elderly people in late-stage. The committee-of-one helps to make a variety of housing options – such as independent or assisted living – viable, so the elderly person can see and evaluate their merits and costs.
  • Money – It’s common for elderly people in late-stage to think they don’t have enough money to improve their lives, or their lives are not worth spending the money. The committee-of-one should help to focus the idea that money enables good ideas and a quality-of-life in late-stage, as it has in earlier stages.
  • Time – Most families that have experienced a late-stage crisis feel the same: “It was really difficult for Mom (or Dad). Our options were limited and expensive, and the process was disruptive for everyone.” The committee-of-one can move quickly to empower an elderly person to make decisions in anticipation of change, rather than in reaction to crisis.
  • Language – The language used in family conversations, and dialogues with the late-stage person, is important. It should not be: “Let’s decide how to sell Mom’s house.” It should be: “Let’s help Mom decide when and how to sell her house, at what price.”

Who in your family should take charge of implementing a committee-of-one? Talk it over and decide. It may be the most important decision you will make as a committee-of-many.

Then, get on with facilitating the best possible late-stage life experience for the person about whom you care, within his/her available resources.