How to have tough conversations about health and planning for worst-case scenarios

How to have tough conversations about health and planning for worst-case scenarios

Covid-19 has highlighted the impact curve-balls can have on every aspect of life.

Dr Marion Morkel, chief medical officer at Sanlam, said there is an increased appetite for life insurance right now, as a result of the pandemic showing how uncertain life can be.

“It’s difficult to confront the idea of illness. However, the single greatest risk a young person faces, due to accidental injury or illness, is the loss of income – temporary or permanent,” Morkel said.

According to Sanlam 59% of their 2020 Covid-19 claims for income protection pay-outs were from people under age 39.

This has resulted in conversations around the importance of tough talks about our health and planning for future worst-case scenarios in many families.

While it may be hard to have these conversations, we can’t deny that Covid-19 has made it almost impossible to avoid the thought of illness, even among young people.

But why are such conversations hard? Behavioural psychologist, Erik Vermeulen says many people have a healthy dose of optimism bias.

They think things will work out. They also tend to get ‘trapped’ in a false sense of security, stemming from predictable routines. These combined factors contribute to a ‘head in the sand’ avoidance of big topics, like one’s health.

Covid-19 and the lockdown have highlighted that when these routines get ruptured, people find it hard to cope.

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group recently reported receiving double the number of calls during the lockdown. People of different ages and life stages also deal with things differently.

Vermeulen said: “Younger generations tend to become even more self-assured and current behavioural trends see them investing less in life, income and illness-protection kinds of products, in favour of funding experiences.

“Then, as people get older, the reality of our mortality may become more apparent, particularly as they are more frequently exposed to catastrophes affecting people they know – or when they have families and dependants. The framing effect of these situations has a powerful impact on their decision-making.”

When trying to engage a loved one on a difficult topic like health, Vermeulen suggests careful framing.

“How we frame questions about these subjects can lead to individuals feeling accused of not being vigilant, so their reaction is defensive and stubborn. The best way to frame these discussions is not to ask ‘why’, but rather ‘in what way’ questions to unpack scenarios. ‘In what ways have you…?’

“People also hate losing things – especially money – so avoid the idea of loss aversion and frame the conversation around gains,” Vermeulen said.

It’s also important to have these discussions in a place where a person feels safe and supported.

A person can also answer these questions on an individual basis. Drawing up a list of questions – ‘in what ways have I prepared financially should I get cancer like my mother did?’, ‘in what ways have I ensured I can provide for my family should I be rendered unable to work?’ – can take the emotion out of it and make it more of a ‘tick-box’ exercise, which may feel easier to deal with.