Uncomfortable Conversations with your Elderly Parents

Amar Pandit , CFA , CFP

Have you ever had a conversation with your parents (and siblings) about your parent’s finances?  We know how uncomfortable this drill can be for most people. Thus, we always do what is most comfortable – Postpone having the conversation. I have seen countless such families where parents do not have these conversations with their adult children – for many, their children are abroad but even for some who have children in the same city; the children are busy with their own lives. Parents on the other hand do not want to be a burden on their children; yet there comes a time when your parents or some other loved one will require your help and even caregiving.

With increasing longevity, I have seen many people in their sixties and seventies taking care of parents in their eighties and nineties (some are even touching 100). This trend will only accelerate as we are all aging for a long period of time with the exponential advancements in medicine. This means that at some point of time, we will have to help our parents, provide care, organize their financial life, and guide them in planning their estate.

The first thing you need to do is figure out the type of parent you have. Everyone’s parents are different. Some parents may want to be independent and do not want any direct involvement from their children. They will appreciate some information and guidance, but they would mostly not want their children to play an active role in their financial life. Another type of parents may need their children to counsel them or provide them with information. You play the role of a guide if you have this type of parent. Finally, there are some parents who are just not interested in finances or do not like dealing with it much. Your role here needs to be far more proactive than the other two. One of the critical things to remember is that aging can have an impact on our patience, ego, and privacy. Let us be mindful of this.

Most of us might not even know whether our parents require help today but it certainly helps to be prepared. We often wait till a big event happens to discuss important things with our parents. Sometimes it is just too late to have these conversations.

The second thing then to do is to broach this topic warmly but at the earliest and see whether your parents are receptive to having this conversation. Mind you the conversation is not just about finances. There are several other issues such as physical health, cognitive abilities, safety, mobility (including driving), housing, mental /emotional well-being, and cybersecurity (with everyone using digital in some form).

The best time to have these conversations with your parents is when they are still healthy, mobile and in a good cognitive space. Like I mentioned above, broach the topic warmly and start small. One of the areas you can start with is about organizing their documents. The objective here is to check where the documents are and getting all the documents organized. This is often a non -threatening way to have this conversation as you are not really getting into the financial situation side of it.

Here is one way to have it “Dad and Mom, I just took an inventory of everything I have, and I have got myself organized. I don’t know about your documentation situation, but do you need any help or guidance on this front.” Look at the tone of the script. You can craft your own one or have the conversation that reflects the way your parents value. An extension to this conversation is to also help them with a Password Manager to store all their passwords in one single secure place.

This conversation about documentation is extremely critical and you should nail this at the earliest and have all the documentation in place (something that you can retrieve in 2 minutes). Post this conversation, you can either help your parents or hire professionals who do this for a living. MLHD (My Life Happily Documented) is a service that is designed for families with all their documentation needs including real estate, medical records, insurance, investments, taxation, banking, utilities, legal, domestic help, online accounts and 9 other categories (We will be happy to share MLHD references in case you are interested).

This is a simple little conversation that sets the stage for deeper and critical conversations. The next conversation to then have is to understand the financial situation of the parents and whether they need any guidance from you. Also understand their wishes and if they have already prepared a Will and a Power of Attorney. In case they have not, guide them to a legal professional or in case they already have one, encourage them to set up a meeting with that person.

One of the other uncomfortable conversations are around health decisions and choices in case of incapacitation and cognitive decline. One of the conversations I had with my father was “Please don’t climb on the Ladder Dad.” Trust me, even this one can get challenging.

The role of your siblings is also critical in such situations as you would need to involve them right early on. If you are an only child like me, then you got to pretty much figure everything out; otherwise sit with your siblings and decide on a conversation strategy.

Some points to keep in mind:

  • Which sibling should have the conversation? Let the person your parents are most open to about having conversation about their health lead that conversation or if they are most comfortable speaking with you about finances, you lead that conversation. However, you must involve your sibling in any decision-making process so all of you are on the same page.
  • Take a collaborative approach.
  • Listen to your parents and let them have a voice. Though you might be the Executive Director of a Fortune 500 or the all-knowing start-up entrepreneur, it will truly help to be patient with them and not try to rush things.

Finally, Start Small but start with these conversations. You might not have all the answers, but this dialogue creates the foundation of trust and for having more uncomfortable conversations that will help you and your parents to be prepared. Vienna Pharaon’s quote is quite apt to end this post “Behind every great relationship are difficult and uncomfortable conversations we rarely get to see.