How to Have Difficult Conversations with Your Aging Parents
(This article is an excerpt from Estate Planning for the Sandwich Generation: How to Help Your Parents and Protect Your Kids by Catherine Hodder.)
An important part of caring for your aging parents is understanding their situation and knowing what they want. If you don’t know, then it is up to you to figure it out.
Having open and frank discussions with your parents help avoid the stress and uncertainty about the future. It is a good idea to talk to parents about their wishes now instead of when they become much older or infirm. These talks will help them plan for future life events, resolve any conflicts within the family, and take the decision‐making burden off of you.
There are five essential conversations to have with your parents:
The Financial Talk – Find out about their financial situation. Do they have enough to live on and enough for the future? Do they have a durable power of attorney naming someone to handle their financial decisions if they are unable to? Do they have a will?
The Health Care Talk – What medical issues do they have? What medications do they take? Do they have a health care power of attorney appointing someone to make medical decisions if they are incapacitated?
The Aging Talk – What happens if they need significant care? Do they plan to age-in-place at home? What senior living options should they consider?
The End‐of‐Life Talk – What are their wishes when they have a terminal or end-stage illness? Do they have advance medical directives or a living will?
The Family Legacy Talk – What do they want you to remember about them? What are the family stories, treasured recipes, and heirlooms to pass to future generations?
Before you start these talks, keep in mind the following to make the conversations easier and more productive.
Talking with your parents about their future will not be a one‐time conversation but an on‐going process. You must be patient and willing to wait until your parents feel comfortable. They will need to be “ready” to talk with you or to make certain decisions about their future. The hardest part will be for them to admit they need help and that you will be taking on more responsibility for them. Understand they still see you as their child who they should be helping, not the other way around. Try to feel out the right times to talk about healthcare concerns and when to talk about finances. Depending on your parents’ personalities, one may be an easier conversation than the other.
Be Transparent With Other Family Members
While it is tempting to manage all information about your parents and keep it to yourself, you may be perceived by other siblings as too secretive, controlling, or influential. Try to include siblings in conversations or at least give them updates on what is transpiring so there are no unpleasant surprises.
Most siblings will be happy for you to handle things as long as you keep them in the loop. Difficult siblings who have contrary opinions can be extremely challenging. But if you give them consistent updates, you can take some of the drama away from them. They can’t accuse you of hiding something or going behind their back on some matter. Of course, if you have exceptionally difficult family members, realize that you can’t please everyone all of the time, and focus on what is in the best interests of your parents.
Since this is an ongoing process, when your parent expresses what they would like to do in the future, be ready to record their thoughts. Recording thoughts and wishes makes it easier to follow up in future conversations. Based on what they say, you can figure out what needs to be done and what steps to take. It is also helpful to have notes when updating siblings and family members. Your notes can also prompt future discussions. For example, you could say, “Mom, we talked about who gets your jewelry and china, but you haven’t told us what you want to do with the house.”
Keep in mind, however, that any notes or recordings regarding beneficiaries or giving away assets are not enforceable unless they are made part of their wills.
Talking to your parents gently and without reproach will have better results than being confrontational. This is not a time to make things fair among siblings or to right past transgressions (real or perceived) within the family. The goal is to have your parents set out plans for their financial and medical future. You may not agree with how they may handle distributions, but their plan is better than no plan at all.
Put yourself in your parents’ shoes. How would that make you feel? Would you be scared of the future? How would you feel if you were losing control of your body and your mind? Would you want to talk about death? What if you could no longer work or enjoy social events and activities you once did?
Recognize that your aging parents may not want to focus on death. Discuss their thoughts and plans for the future without mentioning “death” or “dying.” Use terms like “passing” or “no longer with us.”
Sometimes the most important thing you can do to help someone is to just listen without judgment. A parent may need to express anger and anxiety over these preparations. There may be some bitterness at discovering their life did not turn out the way they wanted it. They may make accusations or blame themselves or their spouse for not taking responsibility sooner. Let your parents vent their frustrations and then help them work towards some resolutions.
Consult an Attorney
Making decisions to cover future life events is hard. Not only is an attorney skilled in making sure all the documents are correct and enforceable, but also a qualified estate attorney can raise questions you never contemplated. Everyone’s family and circumstances are unique. Boilerplate or online forms cannot account for the particular needs of your family.