The Bucket List, a 2007 movie starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, helped contemporize the old expression “kick the bucket,” a common slang phrase for dying. Now, people of all ages often use the term “bucket list” lightheartedly to refer to what they’d like to accomplish, either in the short term before an important life event or on the much larger scale of their whole lifetime.
Family caregivers and their loved ones are on the more serious end of this spectrum. As age and/or illness progress, families often develop a vision for how they would like to spend the time that they have left together. Seniors may wish to travel, reunite with family or friends, give back to their communities and loved ones, experience new things or simply enjoy the familiar comforts of home. Each person’s desires are entirely unique. Family caregivers can help aging loved ones accomplish a few items on their bucket lists and in turn share precious time and make new memories together.
Medical, Legal and Financial Planning Should Top the To-Do List
My first suggestions may sound rather bleak, but these steps are necessary to pave the way for pursuing other more enjoyable goals with fewer speedbumps. Working together to create a comprehensive medical, legal and financial plan for a senior’s future will help ensure all their most basic needs will be met and allow you to both to focus solely on maintaining their health and quality of life.
Legal preparations typically include drafting a will, naming a medical and financial power of attorney (POA), preparing a living will (also known as an advance healthcare directive), and setting up a trust in some cases. Financial planning should include a careful assessment of all assets and income, benefits counseling (and applications if necessary), and development of strategies for covering potential long-term care costs.
Any medical planning will depend on your loved one’s current and anticipated health status. For example, a senior who is terminally ill and receiving hospice care probably doesn’t need to look into long-term care options. However, younger seniors and those with less advanced chronic conditions who are still living in the community may benefit from touring assisted living communities, nursing homes or even memory care units before they’re needed. This will allow them to participate more in future decisions regarding their care even if they may not be able to down the road.
Other important topics to discuss include respite care and end-of-life care. This is the time for you both to explore and express your feelings about this journey you are on together and attempt to devise a care plan that accommodates both of your wants and needs.
Consider Your Loved One’s Personality and Mood
Open communication is crucial for caregiving to be successful, regardless of whether you’ll be tackling a bucket list together. When faced with their own mortality, some people withdraw so far into themselves that family members are fortunate if they can even convince them to be proactive about the legal steps discussed above. Yes, drafting a will and contemplating the likelihood of nursing home placement are emotionally unsettling steps, but they are crucial. If your loved one is pushing back on these kinds of preparations and shying away from discussing their declining health or any other aspects of the future, even positive ones, then they aren’t likely to spend a lot of time contemplating lighthearted adventures.
That being said, there are other people who adopt a realistic yet optimistic approach to handling a serious health setback like a heart attack or a diagnosis such as cancer or the early stages of dementia. In fact, these developments often spur people to change how they view life and how they wish to use their remaining time on earth. These kinds of people may try to counteract any anxiety about their mortality by planning for the future as best they can, or they may simply have resilient personalities and wish to get the most out of the time they have left to live.
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If you, as a caregiver, are blessed to have time with such a person, how do you enhance the last years or months that they may have before they become too ill to make some dreams come true? And how do your own goals and wishes factor into this plan?
Creating a Senior Bucket List
Once the more practical matters above are seen to, you and your loved one can start to create either a general vision or more specific plan for how you will strive to experience life as fully as possible moving forward. A good place to start is by discussing desires—both big and small—and making a list of ideas. What activities, locations, events or experiences are most important to your loved one? Are there any common desires between the two of you or between your loved one and other family members?
This conversation can be a very fun and enlightening experience in itself, even if you don’t ever see any of these things through. Yes, costs, functional abilities and other logistical challenges can preclude many lifelong dreams from coming to fruition. Hopefully at least a few items on your lists are realistic endeavors. Just try to focus on the positive. Planning hypothetically can be good exercise for one’s imagination.
My belief is that, while the caregiver may have a bucket list that he or she would like to pursue, the care receiver typically faces a more restrictive timeframe for seeing these things through and should have the final word. If you desperately want to go on a cruise with your husband before he dies, but he’s always said he’d hate a cruise, try to find some middle ground. Propose a beach vacation, a day trip on a boat or, instead of a Caribbean cruise, an Alaskan or river cruise. After all, the idea is to enjoy this remaining time together, not to force your loved one to fulfill your dreams.
Keep in mind that advancing age or a new illness can cause a person to reevaluate their priorities. If your mom always dreamt of going to Paris, don’t be surprised if she suddenly changes her tune. If this trip is a realistic possibility, then, by all means, propose that you both travel together while you still can. But be aware that, at this point in her life, Mom may value “mundane” quality time with friends and family at home over elaborate, costly plans to jet off to Europe. She may also feel that she isn’t physically or mentally up for such a trip. (Be aware that many bucket list ideas do come with risks as well.) This may be deflating but try to respect your loved one’s feelings and decisions.
If your loved one isn’t keen on stepping out of their comfort zone to tackle an item on their bucket list or they do not have the means or ability to do so, try to get creative with how you accomplish these goals. For example, instead of flying Mom all the way to France, get gussied up and take her to an authentic French restaurant for dinner, bake French pastries together at home or throw a Paris-themed get-together for her friends and family. If your dad always wanted to go SCUBA diving, plan a visit to the nearest aquarium or marine center or snuggle up with some popcorn and watch ocean documentaries. With a little effort, seemingly impossible wishes can be adapted to fit your budget, schedule and abilities.
Don’t Force the Bucket List Concept
The idea behind a bucket list is to focus on the positive and use the time that a loved one has left thoughtfully. Try not to place excess pressure on making and completing a list. You don’t want to power through activities on a piece of paper only to find that you haven’t enjoyed yourselves very much and there is precious little time left.
Instead, focus on making memories and simply appreciating one another’s company. If you happen to check off a few things your loved one has always wanted to do in the process, then consider your time together a success. Just know that the time you spent discussing your hopes and dreams was special enough.
Listen attentively to your loved one. Say “I love you” often. Ask them about the goals they had in life that they’ve already accomplished. Bring old adventures back to life through stories, photos and any other means available. Hug, kiss, hold hands, share meals, laugh and celebrate life while you can.
Document your shared adventures, large or small. Pictures, videos, and trinkets purchased or collected from bucket list adventures will be important to your loved one, of course. However, this type of reminder will remain precious to you and the rest of the family long after they have passed away. These reminders of quality time spent together will warm your heart and provide you with something tangible to hold on to.
Your journey with your loved one will not follow a straight path. After all, life is not like the movies. If you both use this time to deepen communication, face challenges and enjoy everything you can, you will have successfully completed this journey in the same wat that you began it: together.