As our population continues to age, many middle-aged Americans are finding themselves caring for multiple generations, including aging parents. Nearly half of adults in their 40s and 50s have a parent age 65 or older and are either raising a young child or supporting an adult child.1 The key to managing potential problems facing aging parents is to plan ahead.
Americans are living longer and with that comes greater concern about becoming a burden to family members. But seven in 10 adults report facing major barriers that prevent families from openly discussing these potential problems.2 While most adults would trust a family member to make financial decisions for them, a majority report that family dynamics get in the way of making this happen.2 Middle-aged adults today are devoting more resources to grown children than adults of past generations but the American public tends to place more value on supporting aging parents.1
Set up “the talk” with aging parents
You’ll want to have candid discussions with aging parents about the potential need for assistance in three primary areas:
- Daily living
A 2012 survey2 by the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) found that 70% of adults have trouble talking to their aging parents about money and the need for help in making financial decisions. While this survey focused specifically on finances, many adults also find it difficult to discuss current or potential healthcare issues with their parents.
From your parents’ perspective, they may be worried about losing their independence or admitting any weakness. On the other hand, you might find it hard to question your parents’ ability to do what they’ve been doing for their entire life.
Here are few general guidelines.
- Work within your family dynamic. A big family meeting may feel to the parents like everyone is ganging up on them and trying to exert control. Depending on your family dynamics, you could start the discussions in casual settings, such as on a nature walk or while eating at a favorite restaurant. If your family works better in a slightly more formal environment, agree on an appointed time and place to talk about a specific topic.
- Ask what they want. Most people want to hang onto their independence as they age. So ask your parents to make their wishes clear. Write them down so everyone in the family understands their goals.
- Tell them your needs. The more your parents understand the pressures of your own life, the more they can modify their desires to mitigate the impacts on you. Be up front about your capabilities—both personal and financial—which may help prioritize the planning process.
- Use others—or yourself—as examples. You can talk about these issues indirectly by relating it to a friend’s experience or a story you saw on television. Or bring it up when you are working on the same planning for your own life, such as updating your will or living trust, or researching long-term care insurance.
- Respect any resistance. If they put up a wall and don’t want to talk about something, respect their wishes and back off, for now. You’ll need to try again later, perhaps using a different approach.
- Stay positive. The role reversal of feeling like you are parenting your parents can cause tension for both you and your parents. Talk to them as you would a peer. You aren’t there to tell them what they should or shouldn’t do, but rather you are trying to develop a plan that’s in everyone’s best interest. Let them make their own decisions even if you don’t necessarily agree.
- Bring in reinforcements if necessary. An objective, non-family member—friend, professional or clergy—can help smooth over familial tensions and act as a mediator of sorts.
Questions to ask
To help get the conversation started about daily living, finances and health issues, here are a few questions you can ask.
- Is the layout of your home still working for you? Are you having any problems getting around the house, such as going up and down the stairs or taking care of the yard?
- Do you need help with daily chores, such as cooking, cleaning and grocery shopping?
- Do you ever have trouble hearing the phone or the doorbell?
- Have you ever thought about downsizing and moving elsewhere to save money and make things easier?
- Are you able to pay all of your bills? Do you know how your expenses may increase in the future and will you be able to cover those increased costs?
- Do you have a financial plan in place, including a process for taking Required Minimum Distributions from retirement plans and minimizing taxes? Are you worried about outliving your savings?
- Do you have an estate plan, including a will, living trust, durable power of attorney and healthcare directives? Have you kept all of your beneficiary designations up to date?
- Do you have any major health issues?
- Are all your prescriptions current? Do you need any help in remembering to take your meds?
- What kind of health insurance do you have? Are your premiums all up to date?
- Do you have long-term care insurance? If not, have you considered how you would pay for long-term care if it became necessary?
- Would you like help in filling out medical and insurance forms?
The bottom line
As uncomfortable as it may be, the time to initiate these discussions is before there are noticeable problems. Sit down with your parents and map out plans while they are still healthy, self-sufficient and living in their own home. In the end, recognize that your parents have the right to determine how they want to live their lives.
1 Source: Pew Research Center Survey, December 2012.
2 Source: National Endowment for Financial Education online survey November 2012.