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How to talk about aging with your parents

Laughing couple in their 60s
Rob And Julia Campbell/Rob And Julia Campbell / Stocksy United

Opening up a conversation with Mom and Dad about their future financial and healthcare preferences can be a positive experience for everyone—provided you give it some careful forethought.

Recently, a longtime friend and neighbor of your parents checked in with some concerns about your father’s memory: He’s repeating himself a bit and has missed a few appointments. Though these might be nothing more than signs of distraction, it’s a reminder that you do need to have “the conversation.” “No problem,” you think, “I’ll check in with them during Sunday dinner.”

However, when you ask Mom and Dad about these issues, you see a whole new side of their personalities. Mom says you’re taking neighborhood gossip too seriously and your dad says he’s “hurt and disappointed” at your lack of common sense. They quickly change the subject and you’ve lost that window of opportunity. What went wrong here?

For starters, you ambushed them. Sensitive conversations between adult children and their parents call for exceptional preparation, empathy and tact. Because after all these years, you are re-establishing your relationship and your role with your loving parents—and they may not love that idea at all.

Something bad doesn’t have to happen to start discussing about your parents’ eldercare plan. In fact, talking with them when they’re healthy, happy, and not in crisis is your best-case scenario. What’s more, having this conversation now can help you avoid hours of frustration and confusion down the road, if crisis strikes and you’re in charge.

Here’s how to ease into this new stage of familial relationships with care and compassion.

3 musts for a positive parent/adult conversation about aging

Having a meaningful and productive conversation about your parents’ future means thinking about their feelings just as much as their needs. Here’s how to get going with the discussion:

1. Make a list of starter questions.

No matter how much you think you’re prepared, it may be easy to get thrown off or flustered. So, know what you want to say ahead of time, so you can focus more on the emotions being shared in the room. Use the questions below as a starting point. Add or omit questions as necessary. For example, you may think you can start getting into a discussion about their estate planning, only to find that they just aren’t ready to go there yet.

Financial questions:

  • What are your income sources?
  • What are your monthly expenses, including travel, leisure, and entertainment?
  • Where are your financial records? (There are likely are multiple answers to this one.)
  • Do you have a list of your account IDs and passwords? Include checking and savings accounts, investment and pension funds, mortgage lender, and credit cards.
  • Have you assigned beneficiaries for your IRA and other applicable investment funds?
  • Do you have a will? (Read more in the next section on vital documents.)

Health care questions:

  • Do you have: a) health insurance to supplement Medicare or Medicaid? B) long-term care coverage?
  • Are there any health concerns you feel you should address?
  • What are your specific concerns and wishes about your care should something change with your health?
  • Have you designated a health care proxy?

2. Check in on your parents’ physical & mental condition before having the conversation.

Parents concerned about losing their autonomy may be unwilling to divulge physical and mental health issues.

Have you noticed any of these signs?

  • Repeated instances of significant forgetfulness (e.g., names of close relatives and friends, directions to well-known destinations)
  • Bruises or other evidence of falls
  • Stacks of unopened mail on their kitchen counter
  • Calls from bill collectors
  • Talk of taking large investments risks or buying into get-rich-quick schemes
  • Poor judgment in discussing personal issues in social settings

Use your own best judgment to realize the difference between a parent’s random physical or mental misstep and a pattern of unusual behavior. Then, consider starting conversation with them about what you’re seeing. Part of this dialogue may include offering to help manage their day-to-day finances or encouraging a meeting for all of you with their financial advisor.

As you get into these discussions, always be mindful of your parents’ dignity and potential for embarrassment. As you make these suggestions, remember that these are the financial responsibilities they once taught you. For example, instead of saying “I’m worried about your ability to stay on top of your bills anymore,” you could frame that concern as “Have I told you how easy my life is with automatic bill paying? Can I show you how to do it?”

3. Observe these dos & don’ts for your first one or two talks.

Do …

Approach this chat as part of your parents’ overall retirement plan.

You’ve most likely spoken with Mom and Dad about what they think about downsizing to a place with little or no maintenance, visiting new places and pursuing long-neglected passions. Make this discussion a logical extension of these happy topics. (e.g., “We’re going to be so jealous when you sell this house and don't have to mow the lawn and clean the gutters anymore. Have you given any thought to that?”) Explain that you want to kick off a proactive discussion—and be prepared to listen more than talk, as you may know less than you think about their plans.

Invite siblings, friends and extended family at your discretion.

Ideally, every member of your immediate family should be there. However, you may have a very good reason to postpone a particular brother or sister’s participation, at least for the first conversation or two, if their presence could create a conflict. On the other hand, you may also want to include an extended family member, a trusted family friend or a caregiver to keep the discussion positive. Have the person who best relates to your parents lead the dialogue.

Manage your expectations.

This first chat is about re-establishing the rapport between you and your parents and paving the way for more productive nuts-and-bolts conversations to come.

Don't …

Kick this off as a crisis intervention.

You may have decided to have this meeting because of a trigger event—or simply because you feel they’re at the age when it’s necessary to plan. In either case, you’re not a professional crisis counselor. You’re a loving family member expressing support and concern—as you would with any other family member.

Hold the conversation during a family event or holiday celebration, or on the fly.

A holiday or other family celebration is a fun time—and no place for a money or health discussion.

Assume you suddenly know what’s best for your parents.

You're already approaching them about a sensitive topic. Appearing as if as you’ve done tremendous eldercare research, may not only raise their suspicions—you may also make big mistakes.

Get disappointed because “nothing” was accomplished.

It’s easy to feel you’ve gotten nowhere once the meeting’s over. Know that eldercare planning with your parents calls for more decisions, transactions, and emotions than you can manage in a day, a week, or even a month.

You’ve opened up a communications channel today, so be happy about that. Mission accomplished.

Retirement Accounts You Should Consider
3 generation Family at home

How to talk to your parents about estate planning with compassion

Family estate planning is planning for life. It's about how you can help protect your parents as they age, help them maintain their quality of life now and lessen any confusion later.

It's certainly challenging to think about your parents needing an estate plan, let alone discussing it with them. But with some preparation, you can plan for a positive conversation.

Get tips

Identify & gather their essential financial & health care documents

It’s easy for parents to lose track of birth certificates, insurance policies, wills, and other documents – or they may not have some of these. Start a chat about what’s already in place and what you may still need to get.

Are they missing any vital documents?

Your document-gathering may also reveal gaps in financial and legal issues. These must-haves ensure the carrying out of your parents’ financial and healthcare wishes, should they in become physically and/or mentally incapacitated:

Durable power of attorney (DPOA)

A durable power of attorney lets someone act on behalf of someone to manage financial matters when the person is incapacitated. Signing financial documents, paying bills, contracting health care services and managing everyday finances call for this designation.

Advanced medical directive

An advanced medical directive includes two components: A living will lets your parents designate the care they want (and don’t want), should they be unable to communicate this themselves. For example, your father may not want a feeding tube, or to receive artificial respiration.

Health care proxy

The health care proxy appoints a person to ensure that these wishes are carried out. A last will and testament lets your parents designate who will receive their cash, property, and personal effects after their death. Keep in mind the beneficiary designations on accounts work as part of the estate plan.

Consult an attorney to discuss how these documents would work best for your family.

Account for these other important papers:

  • Retirement plan, investment account and banking statements
  • Insurance policies
  • Last seven years of tax returns
  • Birth and marriage certificates
  • Real estate mortgage documentation or deeds
  • Cemetery deed(s)
  • Car title(s) and registration(s)

Store all documents securely.

Many families use safe deposit boxes to secure important documents. But these come with drawbacks. What if you need a document after hours, for example? Consider these alternatives:

  • Online document scanning and storage
  • A high-quality home safe
  • Leave copies of vital documents with a sibling or trusted friend

Start choosing your eldercare support team together

These eldercare planning professionals can support your family’s financial and care strategy.

Who are your financial and legal partners?

Not every family will need all of these services, but these are your key professional options.

A financial advisor.

Your parents may already be working with someone who manages their investments and retirement strategy. If so, ask for everyone to meet so you can get up to speed on the plan. If not, talk with them about finding someone to develop a plan for your family. While they can’t provide legal or tax advice, they can partner with you and your legal professionals.

A certified public accountant.

Taxes are an essential part of retirement spending and estate planning. Have your accountant work closely with your financial professional to ensure the best possible tax consequences.

An estate planning or eldercare law attorney.

Many aspects of eldercare planning, including health care proxies, wills and trusts or filing for benefits call for a legal specialist.

Who will provide hands-on care and support your family?

Medical and daily-living care for your parents may call for specialized people and organizations.

  • A medical doctor with a gerontology specialty has studied the specific issues and of aging and their treatment. Many hospital medical centers work with gerontology practices to provide seamless care.
  • A long-term care consultant can help you and your family review and choose assisted living communities or nursing homes in your area. These professionals typically have relationships with the staff of these facilities and can match them to your parents’ needs.
  • A Medicaid consultant is an expert at the process of applying for Medicaid benefits from your state. Like long-term care consultants, they have established relationships with county case workers who process Medicaid applications.
  • Informal caregivers and support teams. Sometimes the definition of “family” goes well beyond the nuclear and extended family units. Is there a neighbor, longtime family friend or a member of the clergy who you’re sure can help you support your parents in the years to come?

Get professional guidance

Talking with your parents about the delicate issues of their finances and future care can be uplifting, provided you come prepared and remain compassionate throughout the conversation. When you earn your parents trust and confidence by following some or all of the suggestions here, you can help build and maintain a family plan for their future well-being. That way, your family can spend the coming years together doing the things they love.

Are you ready to learn more about caring for aging parents? Connect with a Thrivent financial advisor to discuss putting together a comprehensive strategy.