The Hardest Conversation

We don’t like to think about our parents getting older, facing illness, and their eventual deaths. We also don’t like to think about having to care for them and make financial decisions for them. It seems unnatural somehow. Parents care for us; it’s not supposed to be the other way around. But like it or not, the day will likely come when you will have to face the fact that your parents are aging and need your help.

Because you (and they) know that day is coming, it’s wise to sit down and have an honest conversation about your parent’s financial resources, their wishes, and their expectations. You need to know how much money they have, what other assets they have, where important papers and accounts are located, how they want to be cared for if they cannot make those decisions themselves, and what they desire from you in terms of assistance. Do they expect you to help them financially? To provide home care if possible? Do they have a nursing home picked out? Doctors they prefer? Is there a will? Those are just some of the things you need to know.

This conversation is never easy. No one likes to talk about death, last wishes, and illness and your parents have their pride. They may not want to admit that they need help, either physically or financially. But despite the fact that it’s hard and uncomfortable, it has to be done and it’s better to get it out in the open while your parents are still able to make their wishes known and tell you everything you need to know about their situation.

We’re currently experiencing both sides of this in our house. One set of parents is very open about their resources, wishes, and expectations and have done everything possible to make it easy for us to take over if that day comes. The other set is very unwilling to discuss anything related to money. As a result, we have no idea what resources they have, where anything is, and what they would like or expect us to do if we have to make decisions for them. No matter how we’ve tried to talk to them, nothing is working. I can only hope that at some point they change their minds. Otherwise we’re going to have to simply hope we can pull everything together when the time comes.

So if you have to have “the conversation” with your parents, how do you go about it? Are there ways to make it easier and less painful? One thing that helps is to pick a time when emotions are running low. Don’t try to have the conversation in the middle of a crisis or in the middle of a holiday period. It may seem natural to have the conversation at Christmas when everyone is together or at the hospital when dad is in for some tests, but these are times when people’s minds are elsewhere and their emotions are already stretched. Leave the conversation for a time when everyone is calm and has plenty of time and mental energy to devote to the topic at hand. Here are some other tips that may help ease the conversation along.

Be direct and matter of fact

Think about how your doctor talks to you about your bodily functions. They are direct, matter of fact, and they don’t personalize it. It’s just a fact that has to be talked about. This makes talking about uncomfortable things like sex or disease with your doctor much easier than talking about it with family. Try to adopt the same approach when talking to your parents. Don’t get emotional and stick to the facts. Don’t personalize things with memories or reminiscing. Treat this conversation as a fact finding mission. You need information and your parents can provide it. It may seem cold, but getting hung up on emotions and memories only makes it that much harder.

Tackle one topic at a time

If it’s too hard to have the conversation all at once, start small. Find out about the will, where it’s located, and its contents. From there you can have another conversation about bank accounts, another about insurance, and another about real estate. Then you can work up to harder topics like nursing homes, last wishes, and their expectations of you.

Try writing it down

Some people communicate better in writing, where they can think about what to say and how to say it. If your parents are having a hard time talking, ask them to write down the pertinent details. Then you can go back and ask questions as needed, but the hard part is done impersonally.

Don’t gang up on them

It may seem the right thing to do to have all your siblings present for “the talk,” but this can be overwhelming for some parents and feel like the kids are ganging up on them. It can also lead to arguments when too many people offer too many opinions. Pick the most responsible, financially literate sibling to talk with the parents and then pass the information on to the other siblings. If the siblings have concerns, they can hash them out amongst themselves and then present a united opinion or set of concerns to the parents, rather than hitting them all at once with many different ideas and opinions.

Be clear about the goal of the conversation

Make it clear that you’re not having this conversation because you want their money, or because you want to control their lives. You don’t want to know how much you’re going to get out of the estate and you don’t want anything from them right now other than information. Make it clear that you don’t intend to do anything with the information until you have to. You aren’t going to run to the bank right this second and put everything into your name and you aren’t going to force them out of their house if they aren’t willing to go. Many parents fear that giving this information to their kids is giving up control over their lives and decision making abilities so they avoid the conversation. Make it clear that you only need the information “in case” and that you will treat anything they tell you with care and respect.

If nothing works, don’t give up. Keep trying. Point out that talking to you now is preferable to you having to guess at their wishes and needs later when you might make a mistake. Mention that this is their chance to make sure they are heard and that there are no misunderstandings in the future. Make it clear that you don’t care about the money, only about seeing that they are cared for in the way that they want to be. If you’re lucky they’ll come around and give you the information you need, even if it takes a while and comes in small pieces.

No matter what you do it’s not going to be an easy conversation, but you can make it easier by keeping things matter of fact, neutral, and as free of emotion and personal baggage as possible. Show respect to your parents and let them dictate the pace of the conversation. If they want to have it all at once, great, but if they’d rather take it slow, respect that and go at their pace. Remember that they are still your parents and, as much as you need this information, you cannot bully or force them into anything, nor should you want to. Kindness, compassion, and respect are the keys to a successful talk.

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4 Responses to The Hardest Conversation

  1. Jennifer, you are right, it’s the hardest conversation! But it is so important. Thank you for writing about it.

    John DeFlumeri Jr

  2. Thanks for taking the time to write about this important topic.

  3. Eileen says:

    This is a great article! So important to communicate and have these things spelled out. The baby boomer generation needs to do it better then our parents did. My father hid his money in a money belt that we never found. He never told us much and it was so hard to know the right things to do. Thankfully he died peacefully at home which was our prayer after fighting cancer. If you don’t want to talk about these things WRITE them down! Your kids will appreciate it. Thats why I help people get access to affordable legal help and wills. Thanks Eileen

  4. Jackie says:

    Everyone is different, and my family is the direct opposite of most of your advice. My grandparents actually wanted to have this kind of talk at the holidays, because many children live out of state and that was the only time they were together. My Grampy also wouldn’t budge to talk about certain thins until he was in the hospital – it scared him to think he’d left things unfinished and up in the air.

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