The importance of having “The Conversation” about seniors in the family

Stephen Sontheimer

The worst possible time to make a monumental decision is on the spur of the moment — especially if others are equally convinced that they, not you, have the right answers.

With that in mind, Jewish Family Service of Greater New Orleans is teaming with Lake Lawn Metairie Funeral Home for “The Conversation,” helping families prepare for life transitions and come to a consensus.

The lecture, with guest presenter Laura Zucker, and panel discussion will be on Jan. 28 at 7 p.m. at Lake Lawn.

Stephen Sontheimer of Lake Lawn said he has been coordinating community education programs for several years, in an attempt to spark conversations on a wide range of issues facing seniors and their families. “We will be discussing ways to help families navigate life transitions, aiding challenging discussions and facilitating agreement, and senior care planning regarding difficult diagnoses, care options as well as financial issues,” he said.

Rachel Eriksen, director of clinical services at JFS, said families often reach out to the agency when they are “in crisis,” often in the hospital because of a medical event that means a senior can’t go back to their previous living situation.

Families need to talk about possibilities in advance, because when there are adult siblings making decisions for a parent “they don’t all agree… trying to get them on the same page with what the individual wants, it gets really complicated.”

Sontheimer said programs he has done in the past “have included information on hospices and hospice care, palliative care, legal and financial issues, advance directives and living wills, funeral, cremation and cemetery planning, children and death, suicide and trauma death and grief support for survivors, as well as at home versus residential care for seniors.”

Those conversations often come “when faced with serious medical diagnosis,” which prompts a need for instant decisions on “housing, responsibility for the care of relatives, financial and legal matters, as well as advance planning for funerals, cremation or burial.”

Senior care planning has become a priority for JFS, and Eriksen said they are always looking for ways to expand their offerings. Among issues she said need to be examined are a health care power of attorney and financial power of attorney.

The agency has worked with Sontheimer and Billy Henry on a number of indigent Jewish burials each year, and when they moved to Lake Lawn last year, “they asked us about holding an event together,” Eriksen said.

Eriksen added that Hadassah New Orleans and the local National Council of Jewish Women have done a couple of programs on this topic, with the involvement of JFS. “When Steve approached us, we were thrilled to work with them, we are excited about this event.”

Sontheimer said he is “very impressed” with what JFS does. We’ve partnered with many other organizations in town, but we had not partnered with JFS in doing a program,” he said. “They wholeheartedly agreed this would make a great community program.”

The most important thing, Sontheimer said, is that people talk with their children, with their advisors — funeral advisors, doctors, legal advisors — “about making conscious and correct decisions about the final chapter of their lives.” It can be very complicated, he acknowledges, because of how spread out families are geographically. “It’s important that everyone gets on the same page.”

The conversation isn’t something to fear, Sontheimer said. “People are seeming to recognize these conversations are important and not as frightening as one might think because they lead to comfort and resolution.”

Zucker is the medical director of Family Practice Group, a large practice of family care physicians in Arlington, Mass. She is a Diplomat of the American Board of Family Medicine, and Assistant Clinical Instructor and Professor at Tufts University and Harvard Medical School.

Sontheimer knows Zucker from summers in Maine, where they each have homes. “My discussions with her have impressed me in her ability to offer caring assistance to her patients and their families in making practical decisions regarding senior care under many different scenarios,” he said.

Eriksen said “we think Dr. Zucker will bring a lot to the table for our community.”

Reservations for the program are requested by Jan. 20 here or by calling (504) 831-8475.