There was an article posted recently on CNN.com about the challenges some adult children have when initiating a conversation with aging parents about their future. The article notes the reluctance of many older people to have “the talk” and plan for the “what ifs” that come with their mortality. Oftentimes, the article explains, people prefer to live life “one day at a time” as they grow older. But adult children and their aging parents who are putting off (or completely avoiding) having a conversation about aging may ultimately create challenges and heartache for themselves in the long run.
Avoiding difficult topics can create difficult scenarios
Putting off planning for or having a discussion about sensitive topics like long-term care and end-of-life wishes is an extremely common issue. A 2017 University of Pennsylvania study analyzed the results of 150 previous studies on nearly 800,000 Americans’ approach to planning for their aging and eventual mortality. The Penn study found that only 36.7% of people had completed an advance directive document, including just 29% who had a living will with details about their care wishes. Additionally, only 1 in 3 had designated a healthcare power of attorney.
Rather than waiting until a parent’s mental or physical health may begin to decline, the CNN article advises that adult children initiate a “continuous conversation” with their parents about not only aging but also their parents’ career and eventual retirement, senior living options, financial planning efforts, and other aspects of growing older. The article notes that putting off such discussions can make them even more difficult — such as when sensitive topics must be discussed after a serious life event occurs.
You may have experienced such a situation in your own life. Perhaps an elderly loved one, who was living on their own, had a major fall, which left them unable to safely live in their home any longer. Or even worse, maybe a loved one suffered a serious stroke, leaving them in a vegetative state.
Unfortunately, such situations are common and often leave family members scrambling to coordinate housing and caregiving options while simultaneously dealing with the stress and upset that comes with a loved one’s decline in health. Add to the emotional equation the family’s desire to respect the aging person’s wishes, particularly if they are unsure what those wishes are. Sadly, it can be a recipe for heartache for all involved.
Topics for “the talk” with aging parents
Planning ahead for the retirement years, senior living options, potential care needs, and various end-of-life scenarios can help families navigate difficult, and potentially costly situations, such as the ones described above. But it’s also understandable that adult children often aren’t sure how to initiate a discussion with their parents about these sometimes-sensitive topics.
The CNN article advises that it can be helpful to start having conversations with your aging parents while they are still independent and relatively healthy. This can help keep the discussion lighter and less emotionally fraught.
Here are a few of the key topics that adult children should consider covering with their aging parents — preferably before any serious issues arise:
- Their timeline/plans for retiring from their career
- Their retirement savings and general financial situation
- Any life insurance, long-term care insurance policies, or VA benefits they have
- Their senior living plans (more on this later…)
- Their wishes around care, should they no longer be able to make decisions for themselves
- Their end-of-life wishes
If they have not already done so, encourage aging parents to complete key estate planning documents including a will or trust, power of attorney, and advance directives. You can learn more about each of these documents here. Compiling a list of financial accounts and key professional services providers — such as accountant, insurance agent, financial advisor, etc. — can be helpful as well.
Talking with aging parents about senior living options
A key decision that will impact additional planning requirements is where aging parents will live. Do they plan to remain in their current home for as long as they are able? Do they plan to downsize to a smaller home, or perhaps they are planning to move to some type of retirement community? It is important to understand what their plans and wishes are on this topic since there may be related implications for their potential care needs down the road.
Not sure how to bring up this topic? You can start a senior housing-related discussion with something like: “Mom and Dad, I know we have created a lot of memories in this house. It has served our family well for a long time, hasn’t it? Do you think you want to live here for the rest of your lives?”
If possible, it may be best to avoid terms like “retirement home,” “nursing home,” “assisted living,” and “long-term care.” Although many of today’s retirement communities provide active and fulfilling lifestyles to their residents, these terms sometimes have negative connotations. Terms like “retirement living community,” “active adult community,” or “55 plus community” might be more palatable for some older people.
A conversation worth having
It’s not easy to think about a time in the future when we are no longer able to care for ourselves or to ponder death. It’s also tough to imagine a parent in declining health, facing their own mortality. This is why so many people attempt to avoid difficult conversations about aging-related topics.
But on the flip side, it’s also safe to say that most parents don’t want to be a burden to their children as they age. So, while conversations between adult children and parents about aging and planning for the unknowns of the future may seem uncomfortable, they are important to initiate. You may even discover that your parents are more receptive to talking about these topics than you anticipate.