Role Reversal: How to Have 'The Talk' With Your Aging Parents 

Remember having 'the talk' with your parents? That clumsy conversation forced upon you as a pre-teen when you desperately tried to avoid eye contact while muttering "I already know this, Dad" and wavered back and forth between feeling embarrassed and grateful?

Get ready for a role reversal.

As your parents transition into older age, it may be up to you to initiate 'the talk' with them. This time, however, it won't be about the facts of life. It'll be about the issues surrounding the sunset of their life. Nursing home preferences. Health care directives. Burial plots. Wills. Sensitive subjects, certainly, but ones that shouldn't be avoided. When important decisions need to be made about mom and dad, it's easy for everyone in the family to say they have their parents’ best interests in mind. Unfortunately, that may not necessarily be what mom and dad want, and adult children owe it to their parents to understand their wishes.

So when it's time to have 'the talk' with your aging parents, consider this five-part strategy:

  1. Be an Advocate
    Discussions about end-of-life issues are never easy, so as you consider a discussion with your aging parents, don't be heavy handed. It's easy for adult children to come off as being too bossy in these situations, which can make parents uncomfortable, defensive, suspicious, and even resentful. Rather, approach sensitive subjects from a position of respect. Say to your parents "It's important that I understand your wishes, so I can do what's necessary to make sure your wishes are honored." Not only will your parents likely feel relieved, you'll be absolved of having to second guess decisions you may ultimately need to make on their behalf.

  2. Start Now and Start Small
    Don't wait for tragedy to strike before opening the door to difficult conversations. After mom falls and breaks a hip, or dad has a stroke, the entire family will be dealing with a range of emotions. That's not the time to be asking if your parents have a power of attorney for health care. In fact, in many cases, there may never be a tragic event that prompts the need to have 'the talk'. You're more likely to notice small changes over time that deserve attention, which is why it is important to have a series of focused conversations—and starting them when everyone is healthy. By waiting too long, or by trying to cover dozens of topics in a single session, a sit-down with mom and dad may feel more like an unwanted intervention.

  3. Make Estate-Planning Documents a Priority
    Some aging parents may be reluctant to share details of their estate plan with living children. Often times, their greatest fear is telling the kids who's getting what. So when you talk with your parents, respect their need for privacy. It doesn't really matter what's in the will, the most important thing is that there is a will, along with designated powers of attorney for finances and health care. If your parents don't have those documents, offer to help them identify an estate planning attorney. And if your parents do have estate planning documents drawn, ask where they can be located in the event of an emergency.

  4. Approach Finances Delicately
    Here's something that may surprise you. Middle-income Americans age 50 and older are carrying more credit card debt, on average, than younger people, according to a Demos 2012 National Survey on Credit Card Debt of Low- and Middle-Income Households. An entire generation is entering retirement with a fair amount of debt and many parents don't want to admit to their children that they've been financially irresponsible. So it's important to approach financial conversations delicately.

    And even if your parents are financially stable, they may not be comfortable sharing the specifics of their wealth with you. In that case, make sure you accomplish at least one thing during your conversations: learn the name of your parents' financial representative, if they have one, so you'll know where to get the details if a financial issue arises. This way, you're not seen as someone who wants to pry into your parents' affairs, but as someone who is truly an advocate for your parents. Someone who can help to ensure their intentions are honored.

  5. Provide Emotional Support
    As your parents age, they'll be forced to manage a range of unwanted emotions. Grief over the death of a spouse or lifelong family friends. Loss of status from diminished physical abilities. Anxiety. Stress. Watch for these emotions. For seniors transitioning into later stages of life, depression is very real. Be supportive by taking the time to listen or by helping your aging parent connect with professional counselors in their community, if desired.

    Remember this discussion will be uncomfortable for both of you. So, whether you’re the one initiating the conversation, or the recipient of the information from mom and dad, sensitivity and openness are important.

By keeping these five strategies in mind, both you and your aging parents will benefit from having an open, honest dialog about these important issues. Your parents will rest assured knowing their wishes will be honored. And you can sleep well at night knowing you're doing what you can to make that happen.

Contact a financial representative to learn more about estate planning options and tips for talking to your parents about finances.