By Dr. Marion Somers, Ph. D., Ask Dr. Marion

QUESTION: What can I do for my favorite uncle as death approaches? Edgar in New York, 47

ANSWER: Ask him if he still has any unfulfilled wishes. It's your job to fulfill them if he does. Trust me; you will get a lot out of this process. Being involved in his final days really gives the dying a great deal of satisfaction. It allows them to feel they are actually still in control of some things in life.

One way to ease the process is to prepare for the funeral with your loved one. You might find he/she is much more comfortable discussing the topic than everyone else is. If appropriate, pick out the clothing that will be worn at the funeral. Be sure you know what your elder wants done with his/her remains. Cultural differences are crucial. What rituals should be performed? If they're different from your traditions, learn about them and fulfill them. They might like to write their own obit. And who do they want to have notified? Their alma mater? Business associates? Their union? Neighbors? Grocery store clerk? Do they want the funeral to be solemn or livelier with a band, musical element or something even more unique?

One client of mine wanted to die with a 3-iron next to him since that was the golf club he had used for his only hole-in-one. I arranged it for him and his family loved it. I had another client who loved to go deep-sea fishing, and he asked that his ashes be scattered at sea. He said it would be the one time he didn't have to worry about getting sea sick. Just be sure you're in compliance with the burial laws and regulations in your state.

Your elder will probably want to be surrounded by people and things that give comfort. No substitutes, please. If Hagen Dazs vanilla bean ice cream is the request, don't come back with store brand chocolate. Be sensitive to your elder's favorite smells, reading material, perfume, and so on. One man requested to be buried with his cherished photo of Marilyn Monroe. He said, "The Pharaohs were buried with their wives. I'll go down with my fantasy."

Have fun with a writing or communication exercise. I had another client who was a speakeasy hostess in the 1920s, and she had a lot of fun writing about it for her obituary. She wanted everyone to know she had led an adventurous life! I suggest having your elder write out or verbally answer a few questions to get the conversation started.

  • I feel deeply passionate about:
  • I was put on this earth to:
  • I've learned this from doing my work:
  • I mean this to another person(s):
  • I've learned this from my failures and mistakes:
  • This moment or event was the turning point in my life:
  • The angels in my life are:
  • The miracles in my life are:
  • I'd still like to accomplish:
  • My mentors and role models have been:
  • And this is my favorite! What's your single most valuable lesson in life?

Another idea, if possible, is to communicate with your elder about giving away family heirlooms and gifts. He/she will get much more from the experience if gifts are given to a favorite grandkid before passing on.

©2006 Elder Health Resources of America, Inc.