Image: Medical doctor © Corbis

Recently I dealt with the loss of my father and helping my mother cope with her loss.

As some of you know, it's an incredibly painful experience -- and it's even worse if you're dealing with an overstretched health-care system.

Like a lot of older folks, Dad faced a series of medical problems. First, he had knee surgery. Once back home, he fell, leading him to return to a rehabilitation facility. While there, he developed pneumonia.

What made it more challenging is that Mom didn't think the primary doctor was responsive or available, which caused a delay in treatment. Even the nurse said the doctor spread himself too thin.

Don't let this happen to you. There are things you can do to make sure your loved one gets better care.

Fire your doctor

What people don't realize is that they can fire doctors, Mom said.

True. Just because you've been assigned a doctor -- in a hospital emergency room, for example -- doesn't mean you have to stay with that physician.

"We should approach our relationship with our doctors like we do a relationship with anyone else," said my sister-in-law and long-term health care expert and consultant Christine Openshaw.

"Sometimes we spend more time interviewing a potential painter than a doctor, so talk to your physician early. Ask questions like: "What are your philosophies? What kind of care do you provide?" If you've had an issue and they're not responsive, they tell you it's all in your head, don't encourage you to get another opinion or don't offer multiple solutions, it may be time to change doctors."

There are times this might make sense, like when your loved one is taken to the emergency room. There, you might get assigned the doctor on call, who may now be the physician responsible for coordinating your loved one's care. But is the doctor right? Is he or she they available? And is there a doctor who's more familiar with the patient's history and needs?

Name your home-care provider

Just like lenders that rely on their preferred title companies, so too might a doctor recommend a particular in-home care provider when the time comes. But as with a doctor, if you don't like the first person or company sent to your home, you can usually request another.

In our case, my mother chose to use a home-care provider she had used before -- a company that continued to check in on Dad's health over the months. If you've had a good experience with one, it might be wise to stick with it, even if that means questioning your doctor's recommendation.

"The dignity they gave him made all the difference," Mom said of the hospice care.

Make your end-of-life plans now

My mother said she didn't want her children to go through with her what we had to with our father.

Let's face it: We put off the conversation. It's not easy. But it's really important -- for the sake of those around you -- that you discuss the many details that you'd typically never think about, from life support to feeding tubes. Dad's condition meant he had to be fed through a tube in his stomach to keep him going -- something Mom had never considered.

Hospitals often have nurse hotlines or social workers who can help. So ask for a discharge planner or social worker to educate you about options.

For help thinking through these important decisions now, Florida-based Aging With Dignity has a document titled "Five Wishes" that covers related concerns, issues and questions.

Shop your costs

This one's especially touchy, because everyone has different views about how to care for a loved one after death. And your friends and relatives may quickly impart their own opinions about how you should handle things, even suggesting that going the less-expensive route may be wrong. All the more reason to talk things through in advance.

Be mindful of costs: Companies know there are profits to be made amid your grief. My dad wanted his remains cremated, and the costs ranged from a high of $3,500 down to $700. You might just be paying for posh buildings. We found a place that was on the reasonable side, at $700, handled the services on its grounds and provided both pickup and delivery of the remains -- something few did.

Review long-term care insurance needs

Many people, my mother included, have paid a hefty price for long-term care insurance. "If there's one thing I would've changed there," she said, "it's the 90-day waiting period." (How much will long-term care cost? Check MSN Money's calculator.)

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But shortening the waiting period so your coverage begins in, say, 30 days, comes with a much higher premium, as one insurance agent told me. If you have limited means, the best policy is usually the one with a 90-day waiting period and a lifetime benefit, but the waiting period can be a real trauma for some.

However, there are ways to make the waiting period start sooner. State Farm's insurance policies, for example, count even just one hour of care on one day as the beginning of your waiting period, so long as the patient cannot perform two of six daily living activities.

The loss of a loved one is hard enough. By planning ahead, you can focus more on your family and less on the logistics and financial aspects.