How to Discuss Aging Issues With Your Kids

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Senior father and son talking while having coffee on sofa
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By Maryalene LaPonsie

The Internet is full of advice for adult children who want to discuss aging issues with their parents. Articles present carefully worded ways to approach seniors about selling their house, putting down the car keys or signing up for long-term care.

While these are all important issues for children and their parents to discuss, waiting for children to bring up the conversation has the potential to leave some seniors feeling blindsided or, worse, manipulated into decisions they didn't want to make.

It's a situation Stewart Ingram, executive director of Sagewood, a senior living community in Phoenix, is all too familiar with. "I've seen a lot of moms and dads who haven't been involved in the decision and their children are fixated on finding [their parents] a place for their own peace of mind," he says.

Rather than letting children drive decisions on housing, health care and estate plans, seniors may find it more empowering to be the ones leading the discussion. Here are five tips to help older parents be proactive and start the conversation with their children.

Choose Carefully Which Child or Children to Approach

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to discussing aging issues, according to Keith Fenstad, a certified financial planner and director of financial planning with Tanglewood Wealth Management in Houston. "Every family dynamic is different," he says, "every one of these conversations will be different."

The first difference may be who is involved in the conversation. While some parents may find it makes sense to sit down with their entire family, others may find it easier to discuss issues with only one or two children. Doris Hall of Byron Center, Michigan, has five children and chose to talk to her two nearest daughters about her plans. "I really trust them," the 77-year-old says. "I know they will take care of me."

Select Conversation Topics Beforehand

Just as the conversation participants may differ from family to family, so too may the topics. In Hall's situation, she went over finances and health directives with her daughters. Ultimately, she named her children on her accounts and set up a Lady Bird deed that will allow them to easily take over her property and avoid the need to go through probate. However, this approach may not work for every senior. "I've found there are seniors who don't want to involve their children," Ingram says.

In those cases, seniors may want to approach the conversation more broadly. Fenstad suggests parents who aren't comfortable sharing financial details with their children at least create a file with their documents and share where it can be found. "It's a comfort to know mom and dad have put stuff together," Fenstad says. "You don't have to divulge information.

Be Prepared for Objections or Concerns

Having a conversation with adult children about aging can also open the door for them to express their concerns. Before sitting down with the kids, seniors should anticipate possible objections and solutions.

For example, if driving may be an issue, seniors may want to consider whether voluntarily giving up driving at night or on busy roads would be an acceptable compromise. Those who want to stay in their homes, but are having trouble with upkeep, may want to discuss options to hire help for maintenance or housekeeping.

Find a Neutral Time and Location for the Discussion

Emotions can sometimes run high during discussions of aging, and some seniors may find comfort in bringing in a third party. "Some clients use our offices to host family meetings," Fenstad says, adding that some families find it easier to write a letter rather than have a face-to-face conversation. Others may prefer to have conversations individually with their children instead of calling a family meeting. Hall took that approach by talking informally with each of her daughters.

It may be difficult to have a productive conversation with adult children who are stressed or grieving. So seniors may want to avoid having a discussion during high-emotion times, such as at the height of the holiday season or immediately after a death.

Have a Plan B If Your Children Aren't Up for the Challenge

Finally, realize not every adult child is mature and capable enough to process their parents' aging. "A lot of times children can be in denial about their parents' physical state," Ingram says.

Adult children could also be irresponsible with the information shared with them or combative about their parents' decisions. "If your gut feels that the information isn't going to be helpful," Fenstad says, withhold that information.

However, that doesn't mean seniors should go it alone as they age. Parents can turn to a trusted financial adviser for assistance in developing a plan to manage their finances as they age. Meanwhile, Ingram notes some senior living communities, like Sagewood, include health care services and can be a good option for seniors who don't want to have to worry about children helping to cover those costs.

While aging is not always an easy topic to discuss, Hall encourages other seniors to talk with their kids. "I got a lot of relief knowing that was all taken care of," she says of her conversations with her daughters. "That gives me peace of mind."
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