Having “the Talk” with Older Family Members
by Susan Grimail
No, not that “talk” about the birds and bees. As you grow older the roles start to reverse, and you need have “the talk” with your parents—the difficult talk about where and how they will grow old, and how they will be cared for financially and physically. When my mom and her sister became widows, my siblings and I had to have this talk with them. It is certainly not an easy talk to have, and one that we had to revisit with them several times. Unfortunately, neither one had any intention to leave their home and downsize until it became a dire situation.
Financial elder fraud is often the trigger for such conversations, and it is important to know the signs. I know this because I’ve been through it myself, with my mother and my aunt who both suffer from dementia, and I hope my story will help someone else to see the signs.
By the time my siblings and I realized there was a problem, my mom had 3 security alarm systems because she had been letting salespeople in her house who pushed her to buy them. Even worse, my aunt willingly wrote a large check to a con man. This man was someone she trusted—but he knew she lived far from her family to physically check on her.
Unfortunately, she was the perfect target. When we talked to her on the phone, she never gave us a reason to believe there was a problem. Often, dementia patients hide their symptoms and avoid change. In fact, my mom and aunt resisted moving for years because they did not want to leave a place where they felt comfortable.
Even when older members of the family live close by, the magnitude of the problem may not show itself until there is a crisis. It is incredibly common for elderly family members to hide important information and potential problems because they feel embarrassed, or they fear the loss of their independence. It is a good idea to be proactive as your family members get older, and try to forestall potential problems by talking about them.
How to Have “the Talk” With Parents
Talking about the future lifestyle and health needs of your family members is not a one-time conversation. We do have a few ideas to help get you started:
- Ask if they had any experiences helping their own parents or grandparents as they aged. This is a good way to initiate a talk about what went well or went badly—and what your loved one wants for his or her own life.
- Relate the conversation to someone else: “I was thinking about what happened to ___ and it made me realize…”
- Be straightforward: Some people appreciate the direct approach. Something like “You should really look into a single-level home. I’m worried these stairs are becoming a problem.”
- Get support from siblings and other trusted people (doctor, religious leader). Even if you’ve been bringing up some of these topics for some time, it may be more impactful coming from someone else.
- The Conversation Project: The Conversation Project is an organization dedicated to facilitating healthcare conversations for families. When you are ready to create a plan for this area, the Conversation Project questions provide guidance in some of the areas to consider before choosing a healthcare proxy or completing a living will.
- Figure out trusted contacts. At Halpern Financial, we ask all of our clients (regardless of age) to fill out a “Trusted Contact” form. If we have concerns about diminished capacity, or we were unable to reach a client for an extended period of time, we would reach out to the trusted contact. Trusted contacts have no access to a client’s personal information—they are simply a way for us to check in and make sure the client is OK. (Our custodian Fidelity also has a Trusted Contact form--if you have any questions about this, please just give us a call.)
The idea is not to solve all your concerns in one conversation…simply to open the door so the lines of communication are open. Without communication, you may not realize there is a problem until it is too late. If you have the ability to plan for upcoming healthcare or financial needs, it is always a better scenario than having to react to an unpleasant surprise.
At Halpern Financial, we have guided many families through the financial aspect of this process, and we can help if you are struggling to compare various options for your family. As always, it is better to plan than to react. It is a blessing to grow old and have your family around to help you and enjoy time together!
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