We are always our parents’ children. That’s especially the case when it comes time to talk to them about their finances and planning.
When an older generation starts needing help, the role reversal can be difficult for all to stomach. But it’s crucial to get over the awkward feelings, and have the important conversations ahead of time.
These conversations can take different forms. They can be discussions held well in advance of any serious issues, such as checking that all necessary legal and health-care planning documents are in order, having the names of advisers or lawyers, or knowing the location of a safe-deposit key. Later, they can be the talks needed when it’s time to get more actively involved in an older adult’s finances, such as helping to pay bills.
With sensitivity and a deft touch, most people can improve the odds of success. Children should focus on offers of support and attempting to understand their parents’ needs—not their own wishes. Steamrolling over feelings and conveying the impression of seizing control will likely only stir up trouble.
Children need to remember that it can be a shock for parents to discover they need help. The first rule is to start having conversations about future plans before problems arise. Many people wait until there is a crisis. When there isn’t the pressure, the more it becomes a much easier situation.
Discussions should be couched as efforts to help keep older adults as independent as possible. That includes offering reassurances, such as letting them know there is nothing to be ashamed of if they need some help.
Approach the conversations with an open mind. You might go into it assuming things aren’t being managed well when they are, or you might assume that they are doing well when they are not.
Often, the hardest part is figuring out what to say at the beginning of the conversation. Some situations may call for drawing a parent in. You can start a conversation by saying, ‘I just happened to be speaking to an estate planner,’ or ‘We are talking about getting our wills done. We were wondering if you have done the same.’
In other situations, scare tactics may be in order. This could include relating stories from articles, friends and co-workers about families where important steps were neglected, such as designating a health-care proxy—a person who will make medical decisions on behalf of someone who is incapacitated.
Don’t be afraid to tug on the heartstrings as a way to get things rolling. If something were to happen to you, how are things set up for Mom? How can I be prepared to help? Would it help if we had a meeting with your lawyer?
Another way in the door may be to start small—and avoid setting off alarms—by, say, offering to help set up electronic bill paying or help pull together paperwork at tax time. Both approaches provide more insight into how an older adult’s finances are organized and where accounts are located.
These situations call for knowing the limits of how much information older family members may ultimately provide. They may not feel comfortable divulging how much money has been squirreled away or the contents of some planning documents. In that case if you’re going to bury the documents in the backyard, at least tell them where the map is so they can find them.
All the while, don’t forget that your parents are always your parents, and even if they need more support, speak to them respectfully.