by Karin Mizgala MBA, CFP®
I’m not sure when it happened, but several years ago I realized that the tables were turning in my relationship with my parents. Although still extremely healthy and vibrant at the age of 70, my parents were starting to ask me for advice and I could feel a subtle shift in the balance of power.
Most children of aging parents that I know are busy, stressed, and ill-equipped to deal with the added time and financial demands of caring for elderly parents. And often the need to step in comes during a crisis. This isn’t a great time to make the emotional, financial and legal decisions that are often necessary.
If possible, have a conversation with your parents early. Find out what they have in mind for their future. It’s vitally important to get a sense of where they stand financially and to develop an understanding of the role that you and your siblings might be called upon to play. None of this is easy to talk about. You must be sensitive and respect your parents’ need for privacy, dignity and sense of control. I’ve developed an understanding of these challenges first-hand.
My Father passed away a few years ago. But because our family was proactive before and during my Dad’s short illness, we were able to keep him involved in all decisions and maintain open and honest discussions right up until his passing.
Death is, of course, inevitable. During a time of so much pain and emotion, I’ve found the key is to see this time as an opportunity to strengthen relationships with family and friends as much as possible. My Dad was ill, and death was coming at all of us very quickly. But we found strength in family and turned my Father’s death into something that brought all of us closer together.
It isn’t easy to talk about the end of life, but it is somewhat easier before there is an illness or independence issues. Whenever you have the conversation, ultimately, everyone is likely to feel more at ease when it’s done. Like so much in life, and even death, being proactive and communicating with honesty and transparency makes all the difference in the world.
Here are some simple guidelines to help in developing a care-giving plan of action:
- Start your dialogue with parents and siblings as soon as possible – strive for practicality and openness. Remind yourself, and each other, that these issues will eventually have to be faced, and that it is best to be prepared well in advance.
- One of the chief objectives of your plan should be to maintain your parents’ self-esteem and a degree of personal independence. Studies have shown that most seniors want to stay in their own homes if possible.
- Get informed. Find out what services and assistance are available in your community. Local seniors’ centers can provide a wealth of information and advice.
- Get a sense of your parents’ financial capacity and their desires. Do they have enough money to cover medical expenses, the costs of home care or a retirement home? Do they have a retirement community in mind? Would they like to live nearer to you or other family?
- Do your parents have insurance in place to assist with the costs of home care services or supplies or accommodation in a facility? If so, it’s important for you to get familiar with the details of what is covered and what the requirements are for the insurance to kick in. Your parents may not be in a position later to explain the details or even tell you of the existence of an insurance policy at the time it’s needed.
- Find out where your parents keep financial and legal documents. You don’t need to know all the details unless there’s a crisis, but know how to access the information quickly and easily if something does happen.
- Find out if your parents have up-to-date wills, powers of attorney, and health care directives. Gently encourage them to have their legal professional review and update these as needed.
- Create a list of names and contact information for your parents’ key professionals such as doctors, lawyers, accountants, brokers, financial planners, bankers, etc.
For most families, it can feel awkward, or morbid, for offspring to ask their parents how their assets will be distributed and so, unfortunately, people stay silent. But that can lead to assumptions or expectations that may turn out to be very wrong, adding bitterness and anger when the inevitable grieving process occurs.
Don’t be discouraged if you try to broach the topic with your parents and it’s a non-starter. Be patient and gently persistent. It took a couple of glasses of red wine to get the conversation going with my Father when we first broached the subject as a family – long before his illness.
Knowing where your parents stand on these issues and having a plan in place will save your family much grief later. It certainly did with my family.