Money and Terminal Illness

Should you financially stretch yourself for a loved one who is facing a terminal illness?  How about going into debt?  Should you sacrifice your own financial future?

Many families who have a terminally ill loved ones face incredibly challenging financial questions.  Often they come with major tradeoffs.

Should you take one final trip to Europe if you need to use credit cards to fund it?  Is it worth it to take out loans with crippling interest payments to fund clinical cancer treatments with questionable impact?

There are no right answers.  These are incredibly unfair financial situations for any family to be in and there are no clear rules.

Each family must struggle to move forward using their own values as their guidepost.  What each of us values in the face of death can differ greatly.

I want to enable you to come to greater clarity on what you value.  I want you to know that you are making the best decision for what you stand for.

By considering some of the below principles you will know what steps you want to take.  It will bring temporary relief and joy to those you love.


#1 Spend Over Your Budget

If you have the means this is the time to spend over your budget.  There will be future years to build up savings and plan for retirement.  Putting yourself in major debt is a different question altogether.  But if you need to spend a few extra hundred dollars go for it.  Trust your gut.

If your loved one wants to buy clothes after chemo, take them shopping.  If you have the option to buy the better meal, buy it.  If your loved one is feeling good and you can get away for a weekend, take the trip.

Terminal illnesses can cut short a lot of options.  While you can still seize the moment to share important experiences with your loved one do it even if it costs extra funds.

And don’t beat yourself up if you spend too much.  In highly emotional times many of us lose the desire to hold back.  It’s simply too exhausting.  We all go through it.

Be sure to deal yourself into the momentary splurge.  Caregivers need as much support as those who are sick.  Take yourself shopping for new clothes or out for an expensive dinner and glass of wine with friends.

These steps can bring momentary joy during an otherwise overwhelming time.


#2 Fight The Bigger Battles

Spend your financial energy on fighting battles with the insurance companies or negotiating with your hospital not your family.  These are where the big costs lie.  This is where you can delay payment or get a portion of the costs forgiven.

Remember, all bills are negotiable.  Think about your cable bill.  Have you ever called your cable company to complain that your service isn’t working?  Have they ever forgiven a portion of your bill or wiped off a late fee?  Great work.

Medical bills work the same way.  Here is an opener you can use for discussions with insurance companies or a hospital.

“Hi I’m X, my Dad has been receiving treatment for the last three months for leukemia.  The care he has received has been helpful but regrettably he is reaching the end of his treatment as the disease has progressed.  We have a significant amount of bills to pay with limited funds.  I wondered if you could speak with me about options for adjusting the total price of services and as well as payments options.”

 Notice the structure.  Introduction, communication of the medical situation, context on the overall financial burden on the family, proposal of options.  The approach is non-confrontational and respectful.

The person on the other end of the line is a human.  Many people will try and help to the best of their ability, particularly if you work with them.  Both insurance companies and hospitals empower their billing employees to negotiate rates with customers who show a willingness to pay.  If the bill is large it can come down hundreds or thousands of dollars.


#3 Ask For Help

Just like you asked the hospitals or insurance companies for help you can also ask your family for financial assistance.

This can be a thorny topic.  Finances brings out all sorts of emotions in families.  It brings up old family roles and past financial dealings.

But you have the power.  You can be the person to have a difficult but important conversation.

While no one likes to talk about it, in families it’s often known who has financial means.  This person may be looking for an avenue to help out.  You can open that door for them.

Her are two phrases you can use

“(Speaking to an Aunt/Uncle) Can we chat for a bit about my Dad? As you know his heart disease has had him in and out of doctor’s offices for years.  I’ve spoken with my Mom a bit about the financial situation and it looks like their struggling to meet some of their bills.  I wanted to ask for your advice?  What do you think I could do to be helpful to my parents?”

Notice, you don’t necessarily need to ask people outright for financial assistance.  Start by asking for advice.  If people are able to help out financially they will understand the general tone of why you are bring it up.   

“(Speaking to a good family friend) Can we talk about my Mom’s health?  I was home recently and I saw a bunch of bills on the front table.  I spoke with my Dad briefly about their finances and it turns out they’re really far behind on their bills.  Would you be open to speaking with him about it?  Might you be able to assist financially at all?

Sometimes you just simply need to ask.

The approach you take is highly dependent upon the relationship you have with the person you are speaking with.

Practice can help a great deal to calm the nerves.  Find a good friend or loved one.  Look in the mirror and practice.

Remember people can offer all types of assistance.  They can offer a spare bedroom to an exhausted caregiver.  They can cook a delicious meal or pick up groceries at Whole Foods for the family.  Starting the conversation about specific areas where help is needed will enable your family to support you.  In fact, asking them allows them to help.  That is a gift that you can give them.


#4 Large Financial Commitments

The most challenging financial situation is when families need to sell a home, take out huge loans or draw down on all of their retirement funds to help a loved one.

Candidly I don’t know how to approach these situations.  I know that it’s important to make decisions as a family and to focus on what you value.

I hope to continue to speak with family caregivers and learn more about this topic in the weeks and months to come.  I’ll return back with another post.

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Published: June 25, 2015
By: JP Adams

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