Those Damned Baby Boomers

The Covid-19 pandemic is testing the patience (and maturity) of many, as social distancing clashes with personal preferences and lifestyle.  While the news is full of immature young people partying on the beaches in Florida, it appears that many thirty- and forty-somethings are more concerned with the outrageous incorrigibility of their parents, the baby boomers.

Apparently adult children are scandalized by their boomer parents ignoring the dictates of social distancing, and acting as if they are invulnerable.  An article in the Globe and Mail earlier this week described the efforts of one such responsible adult to convince her parents that, for example, the proper reaction to government-mandated restaurant closures is not to have a house party.  A bar in Toronto, which acts as a sort of social club for its regulars, has put brown paper over its windows and continued to operate in secret, packed every day with boomers.  Many of those regulars used crowded buses and subways to get there.  Their more mature kids can’t get them to stop going.  A friend of mine tells me his kids won’t visit his place, because he and his wife, in their seventies, still have regular bridge parties for their friends.  A recently retired couple is trying to find a cruise line still operating.

The theme is that baby boomers are blissfully unafraid of the risks, and so are unwilling to restrict their lifestyles as any sensible adult would do.  Their kids try to convince them to self-isolate, but find that their boomer parents simply won’t listen to common sense.  Their parents, they say, are so oblivious to their own mortality that they will put themselves, and others around them, in danger of contracting the disease.

Now, I’m a baby boomer, and I take exception to that criticism.  I am not throwing any parties, and I’m not going out to underground speakeasys and the like.  I have foresworn public transit and other crowded places.  I pledge not to join any bridge clubs, or go on any cruises.

Of course, I didn’t do any of those things before. 

But still.

My protestations aside, if you just look around, it does appear to be true that not all seniors are heeding the call for social distancing.  Just look at Donald Trump and the boys in their daily press briefings.  “M. l’Orange, can we introduce you to the concept of two meters?  You do know what a meter is?”

It is also undoubtedly true that a large percentage of baby boomers are generally resistant to heeding any advice given to them by their children (who “can’t possibly understand what we’ve been through”).  Although in this regard, I do note that baby boomers, when they were in their thirties and forties, did not hesitate to give their own parents lots of essential advice, guidance, and instructions. 

Their parents wisely ignored them as well.

But I digress.

This is actually supposed to be a serious article, about a serious subject.

Many of you know that I am a regulatory lawyer, but most probably don’t know that over my forty-year career the other area of law I’ve done most of the time is wills and powers of attorney.  These days, I only do a few every year, usually for close friends, but I’ve probably done a thousand or more over the years.  It doesn’t pay very well, but as a lawyer it is one of those rare times when you have a chance to truly engage with your clients.  They open up, talk about their lives, their families, their self-perception even. 

I love it.

This process – making a will, as well as the rest that goes with it – is a bigger deal than most people think.  I like to tell clients that it is the most important single financial transaction most people will do in their lives.  It deals with all of the assets and money and “things of value” (including sentimental value) you have accumulated over your life, and it involves all of the people (and causes) that you love and care about the most.  Not only that, but if you fuck it up, by definition you’re not around to fix it. 

Oh, and there are lots of legal, tax and other implications, some of which could mean a lot of dollars, one way or another.  It’s easy to fuck it up.

A power of attorney for property, the other part of the money aspect, is the same, except that it applies when you’re not yet dead, but you are mentally incompetent.  Same issues apply, plus you’re still around, so any screw up could also affect your care.

Also central to that process – separate from all the money questions – is what some people call “the end of life discussion”.  It is a discussion about how a parent who is ill, or injured, or in a compromised mental condition (dementia, coma, or whatever), or otherwise unable to make decisions for themselves, wants their loved ones to act. 

There are more questions than you might think, and they are often both difficult and revealing.  The questions include things like:

  • Who is going to make medical or other care decisions?  Your spouse?  Your kids?  Just some of them, the sensible ones?  (There is a document called a Power of Attorney for Personal Care that allows you to designate who the decision-maker(s) will be.)
  • Do you want to be kept alive at all costs, or allowed to die when your time comes?  Should the doctors be instructed to use “heroic measures” to keep you alive, for example?  Or, if you are going to die anyway, or you are in pain, do you want to have them follow a “Do not resuscitate” order?
  • If there are dangerous or addictive or experimental treatments that will help to relieve your pain, or extend your life, do you want them or not?  Which ones?  With what restrictions, if any?
  • What if your doctor doesn’t follow the kids’ instructions?  Do you want them to change to someone else, or to keep your regular doctor even if he is doing what he thinks is best and ignoring what you want?
  • Are there religious rites or practices that should be instituted if you’re close to death?  Is there a particular priest, or rabbi, or imam that you want involved?  I’m no longer surprised with how specific – and detailed – people can be when it comes to questions about religion.
  • Where do you want to live when you are ill or incapacitated, and not able to make the decision for yourself?  Do you want to be in the familiar surroundings of your own home, or in a long term care residence?  How should your loved ones balance cost vs. comfort, particularly if you are yourself not really comprehending the situation? (One client of mine told her kids that, when the doctor said she had less than a month to live, she wanted them to bring her to her Muskoka cottage, so that in her last days she could watch the sunset from the dock every day.)

These last several questions are often the subject of another document, called a Memorandum of Personal Care, in which the person answers those questions in their own way, thus giving their kids guidance later, when it matters.

I always recommend to older clients that they either discuss all these things with their adult children directly, or even invite them to a meeting with me when we discuss them.  Kids learn a lot about their parents in these discussions, and – no surprise, perhaps – parents learn a lot about their kids.  As long as the discussion never turns to money (which can make it go south pretty fast), it tends to be productive and enlightening.

The reason I thought of this right now, when I’m working from home and I can’t do wills and powers of attorney right now anyway, is that many people find a thorough discussion of their own death to be a sobering (and even a bit intense) experience.  People, like the baby boomers those ungrateful wretches are complaining about for blowing off Covid-19, will get very serious if you talk to them about what happens when they are going to die.

People don’t like to think too much about their own mortality, and it may well be true that baby boomers are among the worst offenders. 

But parents do want to make sure that their kids understand their wishes, both financial and non-financial, when the time comes.  Of course, communicating your wishes to your kids requires that you actually know what those wishes are.  That means you have to think about it, i.e. spend some time thinking about your own mortality. 

Therefore, my suggestion to those kids that can’t get their parents to listen to advice during the pandemic, is this.  Approach your parents, not to talk about Covid-19, but to have the end of life discussion.  Tell them that, in this time when people are dying of a new disease, you realized that you don’t know what they want if suddenly they are very ill, and they can’t make decisions for themselves. 

Don’t talk about money.  In this respect, you should probably assume that they already have a will.  They probably don’t, but if you raise it then you sound like you want to talk about their money.  Baby boomers don’t like that.  (“Why should we talk about that?  It’s my fucking money.”) 

Instead, it is better to talk only about their personal care, emphasizing that it is a discussion that you have to have when they are young and healthy.  Ask them some of the questions listed above.  Get them talking about their wishes, what they want to happen, what they think you should decide when they are unable to make those decisions. 

Baby boomers love to give their kids instructions (well, so they say), so they will likely not be resistant to this discussion.  On the other hand, there are three positive results that will probably follow.

First, you will learn things about your parents, and they will learn things about you.  All good.

Second, they may decide to take the appropriate actions to execute a Power of Attorney for Personal Care and a Memorandum of Personal Care (and a Will and a Power of Attorney for Property, if they don’t have those).  They should do this anyway, but if you are not recommending it, but just asking questions, they are more likely to take this step.  Don’t recommend anything.  Just get them to talk.

Finally, they may become more conscious of the impacts of their behaviour, particularly during this pandemic.  Ironically, after all the advice you have given them about social distancing and other safe behaviours has been completely ignored, a discussion in which you don’t even mention any of that may be exactly what causes them to get it.

They will think it’s their idea, of course.  Let them think it.

By the way, if you’re a baby boomer reading this, why have you not had the end of life discussion with your kids?  Maybe now is a good time?

And stop throwing those wild parties.  

  • Jay Shepherd, March 20, 2020

About Jay Shepherd

Jay Shepherd is a Toronto lawyer and writer. This site includes a series on energy issues, plus some random non-fiction on matters of interest. More important, it includes the Lives series, which bridge the gap between fiction and non-fiction, and now some short stories. Fiction is where I'm going, but not everything you want to say fits one form. I am not spending any time actively marketing what I write, but by all means feel free to share if you think others would enjoy reading this stuff.
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