O’Connor: Family discussions key for aging parents

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

If the prospect of asking your aging parents about the way they handle their household finances – or how they’d feel about moving to a nursing home – fills you with apprehension, you are not alone.

However, it’s the kind of conversation you can’t afford to delay indefinitely. As your parents get older, it’s critical to sit down with them and talk about their health and financial well-being – before urgent decisions are forced on you.

The consequence of not having these discussions is that you aren’t prepared to make sound medical and financial choices when your mother or father has an emergency.

Fortunately, there are ways to make this process easier. The most important is to plan ahead. Starting these discussions early and revisiting them regularly will help you and your family handle lifestyle-changing issues concerning your parents.

• How to start the conversation: If only there was a uniformly effortless way to speak to mom and dad about their health and finances. No such protocol exists, but you might broach the topic around the time the older parent turns 70. Once you’ve started the dialogue, you’ll have laid the groundwork to continue it in the future. And 70 is still a relatively young age to begin having these talks.

On the medical side, you might ask your parents what they’d like to happen if their health starts to fail. Do they want to stay in their home or are they open to moving to an assisted-living or long-term care facility? If acute care becomes necessary, is there a hospital they prefer? How much medical intervention do they want if their condition becomes dire? How would they like to handle end-of-life issues? The answers to these questions will play a critical role in helping you create a realistic and well-thought-out plan.

Conversations about finances can be just as challenging, especially for families not used to discussing money.

At some point, parents may need help with day-to-day financial tasks, such as paying bills and balancing the checkbook, or with larger issues, such as investing. It’s important to clearly understand your parents’ goals for their wealth, from being able to afford the retirement lifestyle they envision to supporting charities they care about.

Having these discussions as early as possible helps establish the rationale for estate planning decisions. For example, if the parents have spent more on one child’s education or provided funds to help start a business, they might decide to compensate the other siblings later on with larger shares of the estate. This is a hard discussion for parents to have with their kids. But if they don’t have it while they’re alive, they risk having their children always wonder why they made certain decisions about their assets.

• What to look for: Parents are not likely to volunteer that they need help, so it’s up to their children to watch for red flags – uncharacteristic difficulty performing daily chores or keeping track of household finances, for example. Discreetness and sensitivity are essential. One way to monitor your parents’ approach to the household finances is to suggest going through a routine chore together during one of your regular visits. You might say, “Mom, I’ll be over next Saturday. Let’s just pay the bills together.” If your mother appears to be struggling to manage that process, offer to take it off her hands.

If you have siblings, open communication can foster cohesion and make handling such issues a lot easier, even if you live in different parts of the country. Since the burden of care can easily land on the shoulders of the child who lives closest to the parents, it’s important the others pitch in. This might mean picking up the bill for housecleaning, in-home medical care or making regular weekend visits to look after mom or dad and give the caretaker sibling a break.

Addressing medical and financial issues early can forestall problems later on and help maintain family harmony. 

If you’re trying to start those conversations while your parents’ health is fragile, that’s a real challenge for everybody. But knowing what to expect from each other can give everyone in the family better knowledge of expectations.

• Timothy J. O’Connor is a certified financial planner and first vice-president/investment officer at Wells Fargo Advisors LLC in Woodstock. He has been a financial adviser for more than 26 years and specializes in all phases of retirement income planning. Reach him at timothy.oconnor@wellsfargoadvisors.com or 815-337-9470.

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