The time to discuss issues related to your parent’s aging is before you need to. Some senior care professionals promote the idea of the “40-70 rule”, advising that you begin conversations with your parents about their plans and desires once you reach age 40 or they are age 70.
While this may seem early since most 70-year-olds are still quite independent and may still be working, you want to open lines of communication before a problem arises. If you wait, you may find that your parents feel defensive that their independence is at risk. Of course, this may also be when you are feeling the most stretched with your own family and work obligations. Do not wait to address this subject! Start now with a casual conversation where you listen and learn so you can open the door for future talks.
Three key things you need to know about your parents
All families have their own dynamic. When it comes to sharing personal information, you will need to work with the foundation that you’ve built in terms of privacy or openness. A general guideline is that it may be best to discuss things one-on-one with a parent or both parents rather than larger family meetings where they may feel self-protective. The three most critical topics to begin to gather information about are:
The options available to your parents later in life are often dependent on their financial situation. Financial discussions can be sensitive in the best of circumstances, but it is important to have a general idea of the resources available to support your parents as they get older. You want to determine:
- Will they be able to afford assisted living or in-home care if needed?
- Do they have long-term care insurance and what will it cover?
- Is it possible that you will have to help financially with their care?
Another part of the financial conversation is logistical:
- Where are their accounts and how are they registered (titled?)?
- Do they pay their bills online?
- If someone needed to step in to help how would that happen? For example, are the accounts held in a trust or is there a Durable Power of Attorney in place?
- Living arrangements:
Your parents may not be able to say exactly what their plan is, but they may state that they plan to “stay in the house as long as possible.” This gives you something to build on for future conversations about what might be next. Learn their preference about whether they want care-providers to come to them, if needed, or if they are considering assisted-living options. For many people, those options are not affordable… so will they live with you? If all of the adults in your homework, how will your parent(s) be cared for? Do you have enough space in your home? You’ll also want to find out if they were already thinking they may move in with you or a sibling, and set expectations. Cultural norms can also vary widely regarding these topics.
- End of life and estate plans:
In some ways, this can be the easiest of the conversations. Whether they will have enough money or need ongoing care will depend on how their health and other uncertainties play out. As they say, the two things that are inevitable are death and taxes.
Make sure they have full estate planning documentation and that they have gone over it with someone they trust. It may be one of your siblings or an attorney that has all the details, such as where these documents are located, if there is any life insurance, and a list of their financial accounts and property. This includes making sure all advanced healthcare directives have been executed so that someone else may act on their behalf to ensure their wishes are carried out if they are unable to make decisions for themselves regarding their care.
Be respectful (we know you would, but just saying!)
It’s important to remember that while you are an adult, you are not the “parent.” Framing the discussion in anything other than a supportive manner may backfire and fray the lines of communication. Instead, take advantage of natural times to bring up issues and gather the information that will help later. For example, when discussing another family member or friend who has experienced a change in health, you have an opportunity to discuss what your parents envision for themselves. It’s natural to ask what steps they have taken to ensure their wishes. If they have not yet taken any you can begin what may be an extended process of getting them to focus on it.
Finally, keep in mind their preferences may change over time. They may plan to stay in their house forever, only to find that it becomes too much for them to manage or they feel isolated and would prefer the ease and companionship of a group living situation. The important thing is to start the conversation now and lay the foundation for more specific decision-making that will come later.