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Would they rather die than talk about death?



The Conversation:
How to Initiate Talk About End of Life Wishes

It’s not common dinner table conversation. It isn’t something spouses routinely discuss. Even those of us who are pragmatic in every other area of our lives shy away from talking about our own death; it’s not a topic most people wish to contemplate. Yet as reverse mortgage professionals, you need to inquire about your clients’ desires, if only obliquely, for example: “Have you discussed who will inherit your house?”

However, everyone does need to have what aging expert Suzanne Braun Levine calls “The Conversation”: a clear-eyed discussion about one’s end-of-life choices and concerns. And it’s not just a subject for seniors: since no ones knows (barring a terminal illness) when our last moment will occur, it’s wise for every adult to have The Conversation, first with themselves, then with family members. But how can you broach such an emotionally loaded subject?

Journalist Ellen Goodman has created The Conversation Project to help people begin to talk about one of life’s most challenging topics: its conclusion. This “starter kit” doesn’t address legal or monetary issues, but helps people begin to open up about one of the most important topics they’ll ever discuss.

Why is The Conversation vitally important? Because there’s a huge gap between what people say they want and what actually transpires. According to a 2012 survey by the California HealthCare Foundation,
80 percent of people say that if they were seriously ill, they would want to talk to their doctor about end-of-life care — but only 7 percent report having had an end-of-life conversation with their doctor. Similarly, a 2005 study by The Centers for Disease Control found that while 70 percent of people say they prefer to die at home, in actuality
70 percent die in a hospital, nursing home, or long-term care facility.

Clearly, opening up the lines of communication is critical. The Conversation Project’s Starter Kit includes sample questions, letters, and quizzes to help seniors determine how they feel about a number of core issues.

So while it’s not a topic you can or should discuss with your clients as a reverse mortgage professional, you can suggest The Conversation Project Starter Kit as a resource to assist them in gaining clarity around later life issues. And think about downloading the free Kit for yourself as well. Preparation leads to peace of mind.


Leave a Comment


  1. There is an old saying that goes: “Even though we can, should we?”

    To properly originate a HECM does not necessarily require any information about the after-death wishes of the borrower(s) even as to the collateral. To expand the lending process to incorporate other issues is a very questionable practice.

    What we have is limited information on the borrower(s). To guide a senior through life and postmortem considerations requires substantial information beyond that which we may have. The problem multiplies when a married couple are borrowing as a single borrowing unit. Each may have their own separate interests and concerns which will conflict with their spouses especially when a blended family situation is involved (my kids, my spouse’s kids, and our kids).

    For some of us there is a very vague line between encouraging seniors to prepare for living, dying, and postmortem issues and actually crossing the line to where full services must be provided under professional legal liability concerns. Where that line lies is a matter of professional judgment and has a lot to do with client perceptions.

    Reading the information on the website recommended was interesting but recommending just one website over others could be inviting trouble. Even though it can be confusing to seniors, it is best to recommend at least three such sites rather than just one. It is much better to recommend seniors to professionals who provide services to seniors on matters related to life, death, and postmortem than attempting to engage the senior into any in-depth discussions on subjects beyond reverse mortgages.

    • Jim,

      Good points. I agree about multiple resources (websites). Originators should lightly broach the subject as to the potential borrowers wishes or plans as to who inherits the home and if that plan has been spelled out clearly to the children. While originators must be careful about “practicing law without a license” care should be exercised to make sure the reverse mortgage doesn’t blindside the senior to the fact they have spent some of what the children may have inherited. It’s a delicate issue but I have documented conversations of this sort lest the disgruntled children return with a lawsuit after their parents pass away.

      • Shannon,

        That is a very, very wise approach.

  2. Hello James,

    The intent with all of my blog posts is to provide information to help expand the knowledge base of reverse mortgage professionals. As I say right in this post, end-of-life issues are not a topic reverse mortgage specialists can or ought to discuss with their clients, but/and, it’s good to be aware that resources such as The Conversation Project exist, because who knows how this information might be useful to you down the road, as someone who serves seniors?

    I agree with you and Shannon that multiple sources on any topic are always preferable, as they confer impartiality. Since this is the only source of this ilk I’m currently aware of, I went with it rather than omit sharing the material.

    Thanks as always for your insightful commentary.

    • Hey Ms. Rose,

      I wish an earlier comment to you had posted. I will attempt to recreate it here.

      You are to be commended for addressing this subject. It is a shame that in our society so few seniors reach such reasonable goals.

      Knowing about these issues is important; so is addressing them. Whether they are addressed by originators in the origination process or outside of that context seems dependent upon what the desires of the prospect during the origination process. Some of us believe we should restrict our conversation within the context of origination and address other issues outside of that process.

      I have had origination meetings where addressing estate planning needs would have been more counterproductive than productive. In one other a full discussion including my personal consulting with their legal adviser was a necessity. This was a blended family which by simple changes in the trust document would allow the wife to go onto title and remain on title with little impact on the well designed estate plan of this couple. It meant that either partner would have the house available following the death of the first to pass away but the children of the husband would inherit the home. In low asset/low income situations, there is no problem discussing the benefits of living and testamentary trusts since it is easiest to change title during origination than later.

      Helping seniors is what we do. Providing incompetent or poor guidance should be avoided at all costs. The best thing we can do is make seniors aware of issues related to aging and advise them to consultants who are competent in such matters. Our expertise is in reverse mortgages and when originating reverse mortgages we should limit ourselves as much as possible to that subject as once again our principal product will be monthly adjusting rate Standards which the CFPB as well as many seniors have described as complicated financial products. With the limited attention spans of older seniors, it is important to focus on HECMs as much as possible.

      Thank you for your presentation and keep bringing it each week. We need to be reminded by the things you bring to the table.

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