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The Conversation with Your Aging Parents that You Can’t Afford to Skip

By Marcia Lerner

  • PUBLISHED January 11
  • |
  • 4 MINUTE READ

You may remember some of the uncomfortable conversations your parents had with you as you grew up. Now, as they age, it’s your turn to talk with them about tricky subjects like money, what happens if they fall ill or have diminished capacity, and how you’ll care for them.
 
Open communication is essential, in order for you to help your parents or just prepare for likely changes to their situation. It’s also difficult to plan for your own retirement if you don’t know how your parents’ care and resources will affect you. Your parents may be in a position to help pay for your children’s college, for instance. Or they may be in financial trouble and need your help sooner than you anticipated. The fact is that neither money nor aging is easy to discuss, so here are some tips on managing this talk.

1

Start the conversation sooner rather than later.
If you have reason to think that your parents are likely to need financial or other support, the time to have the conversation is now, while these questions are still hypothetical: Do they have plans for if one or both of them become ill and need care? Do they have the funds to cover care? 

Once a crisis occurs—either financial or health-related—planning and reacting are far more difficult. And documents such as health-care proxies, living wills, and other important paperwork should be completed while the affected parties are mentally competent. 

2

Make it an ongoing conversation.
Money is often a sensitive topic, so go slowly: If you start early, you don’t need to cover everything in one conversation. In fact, you might benefit from making a plan to tackle topics such as long-term care and financial issues step-by-step.

A good place to start is by talking about your parents’ goals, hopes and wishes. Do they plan to relocate? Do they want to be cared for at home or in a retirement community or nursing home? What happens if around-the-clock care becomes necessary?

3

Get access to important documents.
You should ask your parents where they keep essential information and documents, including wills, living wills, records of their investments and accounts, the name of their estate executor, power of attorney, their long-term care insurance policy and life insurance, as well as any documentation about the underlying debt on any property they own. If anything unexpected happens to them, you don’t want to be scrambling to get paperwork in order or get caught up in the courts. 

4

Consider feelings—your own and theirs.
This conversation will necessarily touch on difficult subjects, including the possibility that your parents will at some point be unable to care for themselves. Be respectful, and recognize their independence, privacy and autonomy. If possible, avoid having the conversation during the holidays, when stress and emotions can be heightened.

5

If you find your parents are in financial trouble, you have options.

Offer to review their finances with them, or help them find a financial advisor (though be careful who you select; seniors are often targeted in financial advising scams). Either you, a financial advisor or both can help your family come up with a plan to address the financial challenges your parents might face. These can be trying situations, but remember that addressing these concerns early on is best for everyone.

For the sake of your own financial future as well as your parents’, start the conversation as soon as possible. It may not be easy, but it can make a big difference for your whole family.

Marcia Lerner lives in Brooklyn, New York, and writes on finance, healthcare and children's literature. Her articles and reviews have appeared in the New York Times and Proto magazine as well as many financial websites and magazines.

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