I’ve been intrigued with how the American society reacts to the topic of death for decades. It was a topic I forced myself to consider as a voluntary emergency team responder during my years in global aviation leadership positions. In my 20’s I was called to my first “accident site” and experienced my own response as a responder. Nothing was more important to me than providing care and comfort to the families I was assigned. The crisis training I had had prepared me for grief and loss, yet it was the confusion and utter chaos caused by the disruption of “status quo” for those impacted that has remained with me.
In my own family, whom I will affectionately describe as the “Ostrich Family”, I stuck out like a sore thumb with my quest to unearth the practical implications of an unexpected accident, illness or death. This tendency of mine did lead to serve accident families and ultimately my own, further fueling my curiosity as to why so many tend to avoid this topic.
Isn’t it fact that we all have been given an “expiration date”?! Yet, our society places an interesting twist to death with the correlation of “death being bad”, i.e. the “death sentence”. Why is this topic distasteful in American culture? How might we go about embracing life, through planning for death?
Planning for death involves various components. How does one begin? Through working with individuals for the past 18 months, the common comments are: “oh no, I have plenty of time; this is too expensive; I won’t be here to worry about it; I don’t have the time; and this is too much – I have no idea where to begin. Thinking about actually taking the steps necessary to establish both offensive and defensive strategies involves a willingness to participate and the help outside professionals – attorneys, financial planners, accountants, insurance agents, fiduciaries, health care providers, funeral providers and more. The research reveals statistics that indicate the preference for people to avoid this type of planning entirely.
The American Bar Association reports that statistical studies show that 55% of Americans die without a will or estate plan. Seventy-three percent of US family businesses admit to not having a documented and robust succession plan in place for senior roles, the latest PwC US Family Business Survey finds. There are no statistics for all businesses, inclusive of home based businesses. With the growth trends of home based businesses, we can surmise an increase of all businesses without a succession plan in place.
Advanced Care Directives are available in every state. Current statistics reveal only about a quarter (26 percent) of Americans currently have an advance directive in place, according to a 2014 study by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Through my recent work, I have noticed the aversion to discuss illness and accidents exists also. So if talking about death is taboo, discussions of illness, incapacity and accidents are taboo and we are living longer in than in in previous generations within our society, what is the impact to our society? If Americans continue to resist planning for any transition from their typical day to day activities, what is the impact considering the increase of Baby Boomers and Millennials in our country today?
Increased numbers of baby boomers equates to more people entering the statistical average age for death. This places a huge burden on the health care system from emergency services providers, hospitals to individuals, families and businesses themselves. Every person of a legal age is responsible for making these decisions individually; else court systems decide for them through conservatorship, guardianship, probate, et al.
How does our society highlight the impact factors in such a way that spurs every adult of legal age to take action? Impact factors such as:
- Lack of succession planning by US companies impact the economies of the families of business owners, employees, clients and vendors.
- Preference to thinking and feeling young exists throughout society. Our youth are at risk for continuing the trend of avoidance of the topic of death. Death does not exclusively occur naturally at “old age”. Millennials who have not had family discussions with their parents about their plans/wishes do not exposure to planning.
- When youth reach a legal age, they are responsible for their own choices and decisions. This fact seems to shock people. Education is needed to inform people of this fact and guiding people to take preventative action, as the law looks to them to document their preferences for themselves and minor children.
- The grief process is often overlooked by those impacted when a loved one dies with no plans in place. Where to find vital information, how to continue day-to-day life and having “emergency plans” often leaves people without means to support themselves. This results in a burden to society and avoidable peril for the family.
I for one believe in a societal shift to begin embracing life by planning for the "when" and surfacing the discussion for the benefit of our society as a whole. What are your thoughts?