You have been dreading it, but you know when they reach a certain age it is time to have “The Talk”. You know the choices they make (or do not make) now are critical to their future health and happiness, but the topics are so sensitive that you just do not know how to begin. Yes, both you and your parents are understandably reluctant to talk about such personal topics as end of life decisions, incapacity and finances.
To begin, many families do not even want to think about such depressing things, like the ostrich – in believing that issues not discussed will never happen. Some parents still perceive their adult offspring as “children” and want to protect them from such difficult decisions. Many may feel their independence and authority are being challenged. After the initial uneasiness, everyone feels a sense of relief being able to discuss issues and concerns openly and a sense of comfort in being heard and understood knowing that a plan is in place.
How to Break the Ice
Ask Advice – One excellent way to bring up these sensitive topics is to ask your parent’s advice about your own situation. What do they think about your investments or the provisions you have made in your will? Who might be a good person to handle your finances if you were ill? You can then expand the discussion to plans they have made and why.
News Stories – A story in the news can often provide a good opening to discuss really difficult issues. Discuss the circumstances of a celebrity or other individual who has been ill or died. Does your parent think they might have had a living will? How might they have avoided problems with the estate?
Talk About a Friend’s Problems – We often have a more objective perspective in looking at other people’s problems. Discuss the guilt and anguish a friend felt in making end of life decisions for a parent. This opens the opportunity for you to say “I realized I do not know much about your wishes.”
It’s Not Just What You Say, Its How You Say It
Consider their perspective – Your parents may perceive “The Talk” as threatening, anxiety provoking, pushy and downright nosy. Acknowledge their discomfort and your own. Respect their need to be in control by emphasizing that you want to abide by their desires and need to know their wishes “just in case.”
Give them a break – Often it helps to break up the discussion into smaller parts or to broach the subject briefly and then come back to it at a later date. This gives your parents a chance to think about the issues and time for everyone to get more comfortable with the discussions. You should set a definite time to revisit matters and continue the discussion.
Avoid arguments – Sensitive topics can give rise to family conflicts and sibling rivalries. Avoid being argumentative and keep focused on the goal of working together toward a high quality of life for mom and dad. In some situations, family counselors or mediators may help the family work through issues.
Choose the right messenger – It may be helpful to have someone other than family address some issues. Your parents may be more inclined to listen to a family friend or a policeman about the need to stop driving or the family doctor about the need for home help.
Commit to help in specific ways – Now that things are out in the open, work together to establish a family plan. If you want Dad to stop climbing up on the roof, commit to when your son will be there to clean the gutters. If Mom has agreed to stop driving, how often will you be by to take her to the hairdresser or the grocery? What trade professionals can be relied upon? Who is to be called in an emergency? Involve as many family members as possible in roles they are comfortable with so that one person is not overwhelmed and no one feels excluded.
Go slowly – Take things slowly. Parents are more receptive to help with organizing records or unofficially monitoring assets online than they are with someone “stepping in” or “taking over.” It will be easier to gradually move into a more official role as everyone gets more comfortable with sharing the reins.
Help them help themselves – Think of ways that will help your parents help themselves. Set up the bills to be paid automatically. Install grab bars in the bathroom. Organize the weekly pill box. Help consolidate their assets into fewer accounts and credit cards.
Formalize the plan – Schedule an appointment with an elder law attorney to be sure all legal bases are covered including appropriate wills or trusts, powers of attorney for finance and health care and living wills. The attorney will review the available assets, discuss public resources and address taxes and other planning issues. Putting all the pieces together will give your parents and the entire family peace of mind.
Marta J. Williger
Certified Elder Law Attorney