Few things in life are more difficult than watching your parents–those people who seemed so strong and invincible–begin to age. I think there is a moment in every adult child’s life where we realize that the ones who took care of us for so many years no longer can, and now it is our turn to take care of them.
It might even be the hardest part about being a grown up.
But like it or not, being a grown up also means sometimes tackling hard subjects head on, and one of the most challenging and emotional conversations those of us with aging parents must face is how to talk to them about money–about estate planning, long-term health care, insurance, and all those other sticky details that no one really wants to think about.
Because, as painful and awkward as this conversation can be, the reality is that, money plays a pretty big role in end-of-life decision making, and NOT taking the time to talk about it and proactively make decisions ahead of time can set your family up for even more pain and awkwardness–and a whole lot of hard feelings–later on.
The good news is, it doesn’t have to be that way! By approaching the topic of money with love, understanding and preparedness, you can make an uncomfortable-but-necessary conversation turn into something very valuable and productive. You can head off hurt feelings and concerns, and address them with grace and kindness.
Here are a few practical suggestions for how to open up the conversation and talk to your aging parents about money:
Prepare Ahead of Time
Mentally prepare for the conversation ahead of time by first realizing that aging in an emotional process, and that any conversation that makes you come face to face with your own mortality is going to be difficult. Approach the situation with an attitude of grace and patience. Resolve to keep an open mind and a softened heart.
Remember to respect the autonomy of your parents. They were the ones who raised you, after all! They’re adults, and even if their physical or mental capacity has diminished with age, they’ll still respond better if you approach the situation in a respectful and understanding manner. Even if their wishes don’t sync exactly with your own, it is important to let them exercise control of their own situation.
If you have siblings, do your best to make sure all of you are on the same page before you broach the topic with your parents. While you do have to be careful of coming on too strong–no one wants to feel ganged up on–having the support of your siblings from the get-go can help you all avoid hurt feelings and misunderstandings later on.
Let your parents know you have some concerns about their financial future—and your own. You can tell them you’re making plans for the future and working on your will and other financial arrangements. Explain that, because of this, the family’s financial state of affairs has been weighing on your mind. Tell them you’d really like to sit down and have a discussion about their finances and wishes.
If They Say No
If they shut you down, understand they’re probably coming from a place of good intentions. They may not want to worry you or stir up concerns. Many elderly people are actually very fearful of their financial future—stretching retirement savings to age 80 is one thing, but stretching it out for another 13-15 years is quite another. They could also be feeling embarrassed or guilty if they haven’t planned for their financial well being. It’s likely they don’t want to burden you with their concerns.
The best thing you can do is approach the situation with empathy. Think of your own children and how you would feel if you knew you had to ask them to face hard choices about your care. You would, of course, try to protect them from what they had to face. Your parents are trying to do the same thing for you.
They may also be worried about your relationship(s) with your siblings, so they may be concerned about keeping everything even and fair. They might feel you’re trying to usurp your brothers and sisters or they might even be concerned about their children becoming reliant on an inheritance instead of making their own financial plans. Reassure them this isn’t the case, and be open to including all parties in the conversation, if that’s what your parents wish.
Being firm is ok, too. Let your parents know it’s really weighing on you. If you must, promise them this will be a one-time conversation topic. If necessary, explain that once you have the conversation, you won’t need to approach it again. Acknowledge that it’s difficult for all of you and let them know you’d like to come in prepared. Give them time to prepare as well.
Always offer to have the conversation with or without your spouse. Some parents have different feelings about their in-laws, so they might feel most comfortable discussing things with you and your siblings alone without spouses. This is an area where you need to respect their wishes and understand it’s more important to make the conversation as comfortable as possible for all parties involved.
Don’t expect the conversation to take place immediately. Ask them when you can sit down and schedule some time to talk. It’s unfair to “spring” such a complicated topic on your parents out of the blue. Instead, give them time to mull it over, gather documents they wish to share with you, and think about their responses.
Avoid scheduling the conversation around the holidays, which can be busy and distracting. While it’s certainly a conversation to have in-person, try to aim for another time, if possible. The holidays can also be an emotionally difficult time for a grieving parent or a parent with grave financial or health concerns. Instead, focus on the happiness and joy of the season and save the conversation for when things are less complicated, hectic, and emotionally charged.
Prepare a Checklist
If it helps you to have a frame of reference, create a checklist with accounts and points of discussion so you can be certain you remember the items you wish to discuss. When emotions are high and tense, you might forget something you really want to touch on. Let your parents and siblings know you’ve prepared a list of accounts and you’d like to share it with them ahead of time.
Focus on getting background information for the list, rather than balances and dollar amounts. If your parents want to share the information with you, wonderful! If they don’t seem comfortable being that candid, try to gain a general understanding of where the accounts are held and what you would need to know if someone was unable to access the information for you.
Some items to include on the list are:
- Savings & Checking Account Information
- Insurance Policies (Life, Disability, Health)
- Mortgage Lender and Status
- Investments: Institutions or Brokers
- Debts (Creditors, Payment Information and Amounts, if possible)
- Other Assets and Liabilities
- Utilities (Providers, Payment Plans, etc)
- Memberships & Clubs
- Will & Testament Information (Executor)
- Location of Important Documents (Titles, Certificates)
We’ve all heard stories about someone finding a shoebox full of cash hidden in a closet or tucked away in the freezer. Many of our parents grew up in a time when they were distrustful of banks and the economy. Gently ask if they have anything hidden somewhere you’d need to find, including a safe, jewelry or other valuables you might not be able to recognize or locate.
End of Life Wishes
Having a living will with medical guidelines and wishes helps take the onus off of loved ones when they’re grieving or going through trauma. Unfortunately, not everyone is comfortable filling out a living will and care plan. Gently bring it up with your parents and ask them to share their preferences with you.
Explain as the next of kin, you would be in charge of making these difficult choices. So, rather than have to make decisions clouded by grief, you’d like to have them in place when everyone has a clear head. Help them understand you will respect their wishes and hold to your promises.
A word of caution: this conversation can be hard to have, particularly if you don’t agree with your parents’ choices. If you truly feel you can’t follow through with their wishes, encourage them to appoint an objective party in their living will. This will take the pressure off you and allow their wishes to be carried out as they see fit.
Some topics to cover and touch on are:
- Organ Donation
- Resuscitation & Life Support
- Hospital & Hospice Care
- Mental Health Concerns & Care
- Power of Attorney
- Funeral Plans
- Burial Wishes
As difficult as this discussion might be, it’s always good to remind yourself how much harder it could be if you were trying to have it after hearing news of a diagnosis or accident. Facing these topics while everyone is calm, lucid and in a sound state of mind is proactive, practical and respectful.
It’s much easier to have these talks when your parents are younger and they still seem to be a distant concern. As your parents get older or if they’re facing a health crisis, it only becomes more challenging.
Plans for the Future
During this conversation, there are other important topics to touch on. These topics might not seem as dire, but they can still present stress for caretakers. What does your parent want you to do if you have concerns about the maintenance and upkeep of their yard? How would they like help handling meal plans? Household chores?
These items might seem small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but many elderly people suffer from falls and injuries because they’re trying to do household tasks. Offer to hire a gardener, schedule a snowplowing company, or have someone come in and do light housekeeping once a week. Doing so might prevent injury and give you both peace of mind.
Ask your parent about their driving abilities. Their independence is very important, but you should both keep in mind the dangers if they injury someone (or themselves) while driving. Consult with them about their concerns and try to be realistic when making plans. Perhaps you can arrange a car service to take them to a nighttime appointment if they don’t see as well in the dark.
If your parent can no longer live independently, what is their expectation? Would they expect to move in to your guestroom? Would they prefer a retirement community or in-home care? If they have financial concerns, how can you work together to alleviate them while still having a plan in place that’s safe and puts the least amount of stress on all parties?
Try to find compromises while asking them about their plans and preferences. Ask when they would like you to (or when they expect you to) intervene. Tell them how much you want to follow their wishes and how you don’t want to create a negative situation. Approach everything from a place of caring and concern.
One thing to keep in mind: you may not get all the answers you’re hoping for. This can be one of the most difficult and emotionally fraught conversations we can face. The goal is for it to go as smoothly as possible and result in as much productive and proactive information to help guide you in case of an emergency. If they’re unwilling to answer certain questions, be willing to accept and respect the information they have provided. Pleading or nagging for certain answers won’t likely help ensure an ongoing positive relationship.
If it so happens, acquire the information you can and leave it be. Then continue to enjoy your parents as long as they’re in your life.
We may always think of our parents as being in charge and we may always look to them for guidance. It can be hard to see they need care later in life and to know what to do to meet their needs. Hopefully we can extend the same love and care to them that they tried to extend to us when we were young.
If you approach your relationship with love, kindness, empathy and understanding, you’ll be able to have a productive but tough conversation that will provide the answers you need when the time comes.