How to have “the conversation” with your aging parents


For those whose parents are aging, November holds special significance as National Family Caregiver Month. It reminds us that millions of caregivers take care of the vast majority of the care of our elderly and disabled loved ones. And family care is on the rise.

As America’s population ages, the next generation will increasingly face the task of exploring their parents’ care preferences. “Role reversal” or the thought of taking care of someone who is caring for you can be uncomfortable, sensitive, threatening, emotional, but necessary. The sooner you have this conversation, the better, because having to guess or scramble when there is a health emergency is not good for anyone.

In a short decade, the vast majority of the massive baby boomer population will be over 70 while their children are still at the peak of their careers and busy raising families.

Families can be more geographically dispersed, adding even more complexity. All of this, combined with a shortage of health care providers, puts much more pressure on families to actively step in and plan for their parents’ care. The first step is to have “the discussion” to better understand your parents’ care preferences.

Typically, these types of conversations about family relationships fall into two camps, welcome or unwelcome. Some aging parents may enjoy direct conversation, while others may procrastinate and prefer more privacy. This was the case with my father who is now 93 years old. He always believed he would die in bed, on the family farm, and planning something different was absurd and totally unnecessary.

Perspective and Context

Research tells us that as we age, older people tend to worry about issues of control and inheritance. Understanding how these two forces play out in your parents’ lives will be helpful context during these conversations. These questions are often the root of a parent’s resistance to help or transition.

Control is becoming more and more of a concern as parents begin to experience a decline in their physical and mental capacities, possibly the first threat to their independence. Losing control is naturally a difficult subject. Mortality amplified by the loss of loved ones puts inheritance first for the elderly. According to David Solie, author ofHow to tell Seniors, “coming to terms with one’s heritage is great work and has a powerful effect on the actions of a person, whether they realize it or not”. Helping your parents restore their legacy can help make these past few years more fulfilling.

Care considerations

There are a lot of considerations to keep in mind to help your parents plan for their care and stay independent for as long as possible. Some of the common topics include housing, finances, health care, transportation, home modifications, home care, personal care, shopping, meals, and even companion care. The very good news is that there are now many resources to meet most of these needs and we have seen these services become more common during the pandemic.

Most seniors prefer to “age in place” as long as possible. In fact, according to a recent AARP survey, 3 in 4 adults aged 50 and over want to live in their homes as they age. While understandable, very few achieve this goal without transitioning to housing. According to the National Council on Aging, older people tend to move more often after age 65 than in previous years combined. We saw it with my 92 year old mother in law who has moved five times in the past 15 years. These transitions are difficult and usually involve some degree of gradual downsizing and loss of control.

Read: 90% of adults say they want to age in place – what that really means

Aging well in place is probably the most cost-effective housing solution, but it doesn’t just happen, it requires a plan that evolves over time. For some, this will mean downsizing to the ideal retirement home, ideally with gradual care alternatives. Cognitive decline also becomes an increased risk with age and will likely lead to expensive care and more limited housing options. For others, safety, including changes to home accessibility, will be a priority. It is helpful to help parents see the importance of having help with home maintenance and care, such as lawn maintenance and house cleaning.

As parents get older, they will likely need more help. Help with errands, doctor’s appointments, meals, driving and finances are often the next steps. For many, there comes a time when the need for care is greater and requires more effort. According to the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging, 75% of people aged 85 and over report some degree of permanent limitation in performing activities of daily living such as eating, bathing, or dressing.

Many couples ignore a period when one of them lives alone after losing their partner. This can be a trigger for a change of housing and additional care needs. For some, it’s an opportunity to boomerang home, live with a sibling, be closer to their family, or move to a new community.

Legacy Considerations

As part of the overall plan of care, it is important to ensure that basic estate planning has been done and is up to date. This should include key documents such as setting up a healthcare directive, power of attorney and will, while ensuring that assets are properly titled and beneficiary designations are up to date. It is also important to deepen a directive on health care and to have a designated representative for health care. Giving is often an important part of having a meaningful legacy. Understanding their legacies beyond the wealth transfer will help your parents feel more connected to their legacy.

It may seem overwhelming to discuss this with your parents, thinking that you and the other family members are envisioning a time when you will step in and take over a lot of the care. I like to think of a plan of care and of family members acting as care coordinators.

Most parents don’t want to be a burden on their children, so helping them understand that they have a plan, a range of child care options, and the financial means is really important – you could even say a valuable gift.

Angie O’Leary, Wealth Planning Manager at RBC Wealth Management-US

RBC Wealth Management, a division of RBC Capital Markets, LLC, member NYSE / FINRA / SIPC.


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