Do you remember a time when you were young and thought your parents were strong and could protect you from anything? When you were a teen and thought they didn’t understand anything? When you finally understood the value of their advice? These stages continue and at some point, we realize our parents are older, they’ve slowed down, they can’t do what they used to and it scares us.
It’s natural to worry about your parents and other family members as they grow older. You may worry about their declining health, whether they have enough assets and resources, what their plan is if they can’t live at home and other end-of life decisions. It would be too easy if they just explained everything to you openly and in fine detail. Unfortunately, this usually does not happen. Instead, you get pieces here and there or they may not bring up end-of life discussions at all.
As adult children, we do not want to broach the topic because we don’t want to pry or appear nosy. As part of my professional role, I encourage my older clients to talk with their adult children so everyone understands the parents’ wishes and who needs to step into which roles when needed.
There are many reasons why your parents may not start these important discussions: they think it is a burden to you, they’re too busy or they think you’re too busy, they want to get everything organized first, there is a lack of trust, there are tensions between family members, they don’t want you to know their business or they don’t want to lose control. Whatever the reason, inevitably time runs out.
I can tell you from personal experience that having to manage another person’s finances and healthcare decisions, without any input from them, is very difficult and overwhelming. In general, talking about money is taboo, but that does not mean you should do nothing. You should start these important discussions with your parents or other family members, but you must take the time and plan first. The following are steps to help start the conversation.
STEP ONE: IT’S THEIR LIFE, SO BE RESPECTFUL OF THEIR DECISIONS
Before you do anything, take a step back and try to fully understand that this is about your parent’s life and what they want, and not your own agenda. Whether their life and decisions inconvenience you or make you worry, it is still their life and they want to remain in control of that life for as long as possible.
Losing control is one of the greatest fears for seniors. This control includes their health, where they live, their finances and general decision making. Control or the fear of losing it can cause many communication issues, especially if we insist that our parents do what we believe to be in their best interest. Helping is one thing; taking over is another.
STEP TWO: WHAT TO DISCUSS
Think about the topics that you want to discuss. This can be general or a list of specific questions. The initial goal is to encourage openness. I generally recommend starting with whether they have estate planning documents, if those documents are current and who are in the named roles (i.e. Financial or Healthcare Agent, Executor, Trustee, etc.). This is especially important if their health is declining. If they have a Will, but it was created long ago, they should meet with an estate planning/elder law attorney. Their situation has likely changed, and their older documents may not accurately reflect their current wishes or name the people they want for certain roles. If their health declines or they become incapacitated, they may not legally be able to create or change their documents.
Other topics include:
- Health and medical
- End-of-life decisions such as future living arrangements, medical treatments and care preferences, and after-death arrangements.
- A general sense of their finances. You don’t need to know specifics. Start with the structure and their thoughts and plans for the future.
- Contact information for their professional advisors (financial advisor, accountant, estate planning attorney and insurance agent, among others).
STEP THREE: WHAT NOT TO DO
Before starting these discussions, avoid certain approaches. While you would like to have answers or help them make correct decisions, remember this is about them and what they want. What you believe to be a “correct” decision, may not be what they want. A good example is if they have elected not to have a medical procedure that might prolong their life. It is your job is to help them and respect their decision. The following is why many discussions end before they even start.
Avoid the following:
- Putting your objectives above their own.
- Hurrying or demanding them to make decisions.
- Being condescending, overbearing or confrontational.
- Giving them a “to do” list.
- Telling them what to do or what they should decide.
- Judging them or reminding them of past mistakes.
- Giving them an ultimatum.
- Threatening them in any way.
STEP FOUR: HOW TO START THE DISCUSSION
Start slowly to see how receptive your parents are. Remember, they can stop these discussions before they begin, and then it may be harder to try again.
Here are good practices to follow:
- Be calm and reassuring.
- Make time and do not rush the discussions. Put your cell phone away.
- Timing is important. Avoid times where there may be distractions (kids, noise, large gathering, etc.) or people around who do not need to hear or be part of the discussion.
- Let them know you’re here to help, but that they’re in control of their decisions.
- Be compassionate and patient!
Try one of the following four approaches to start a discussion. Depending on personality and relationship, one approach may work better than another. If you get initial resistance, don’t give up, but try again another time with a different approach.
The Direct Approach: This approach works best if you have a good relationship with your parents and you think they will be receptive. For some, being direct is like being pushy and nosy, which can cause a defensive response. Explain why you want to have these discussions. If you don’t think being direct will work with your parents, or you’ve already tried and failed, try one of the other following approaches.
The Story or News Approach: You can tell a story from your own or another’s life or recite a story from the news that you can transition into a more meaningful discussion. An example could be a famous person who died without a Will.
The Life Event Approach: If you and/or your parents know of someone who had a life event, such as an illness or disease, disability, death or even a health scare, this can be a good conversation starter. For example, an event might have caused you to reconsider your own estate planning. If an event is recent and tragic, such as the loss of a spouse or other close person, give them some time to grieve and process the event. Acting too hastily or when you yourself are emotional can negatively affect the conversation.
The Advice Approach: If your parents aren’t warm, don’t talk about their finances, might find the topic an invasion of their privacy, are used to telling you what to do or are condescending, then ask for their advice. Controlling type people like to give their opinion on things. For example, you could ask if they have any knowledge on obtaining estate planning documents because you’re interested in learning more. This may lower their guard, and it might open a window to discuss their own estate planning documents.
Asking your parents if they want to include a neutral party, such as their financial advisor, estate planning attorney or other trusted professional may help facilitate the discussion. They can also help answer technical questions and make suggestions as the discussion progresses.
WHAT TO DO IF THEY REFUSE TO TALK?
What can adult children do if their parents are not interested in a discussion? This might take several attempts, and you may have to move at a slower pace than you want. Be patient.
First, evaluate your initial approach. Review the list of things to avoid and the good practices to follow in steps three and four. You may want to try again, but with a different approach.
If you don’t get along with one or both of your parents or have a strained relationship, then they may be more receptive to have discussions with neutral third parties such as a professional advisor, members of clergy, friends or other family members. This is especially true if there are tensions between family members. This is a good path to try if you’ve hit roadblocks.
No matter how hard you try, what books you’ve read on the subject or who has provided you advice, for some, you are going to hit a wall and not be able to get past it. Unless they are an actual danger to themselves, you may just have to wait until an emergency happens and then step in. This happens more frequently than it should. It’s hard to sit back and watch things unravel, especially when you know you could have helped a lot earlier, but it might be your only option.
In this situation, I recommend researching services and professionals to contact if/when an emergency happens. Financial advisors, accountants, estate planning attorneys, daily money managers, and aging life care managers all have their part that they can assist with. So, while you may have to wait until it’s technically too late, know that there are professionals who can help you when needed.
As time passes, you may have to review plans. Hopefully, this is done when your parents are still healthy, but many people wait until it’s too late. In the end, remember this is not about you; it about your parents and how you can help them best.
The following resources may be helpful now or in the future.
- Starting End-Of-Life Conversations Now
- Senior Services To Know About
- The Windward Foundation (Provides support to families and caregivers touched by Alzheimer’s and dementia)
- Financial Guidance For Dementia Caregivers
- How to Say It to Seniors, by David Solie
- Steps To Take When Loved One Passes Away (PDF)
Stay safe and healthy,
Michael Fuhr, CFP®
Michael Fuhr, CFP®, is the founder of Evergreen Wealth Services, an independent, fee-only (no commissions or product sales) financial advisory firm. Michael provides financial planning and investment management services, focusing on challenging life situations/transitions, such as the loss or incapacitation of a spouse or adult children taking responsibility for their parents’ finances.