Planning for the "What Ifs"

Mother and daughter stared at each other across the kitchen table. Their coffee grew cold as they waited for the other one to speak. The oven beeped indicating that the muffins were ready. Mom slowly stirred her coffee with her favorite spoon. A soft “clink, clink, clink” filled the void.

The daughter spoke first. “Mom, we need to talk about the possibility of you or Dad becoming incapacitated, or even worse, if one of you dies. I need to plan what to do.” She sounded like the little girl she once was when begging for another cookie. “Mom, please!”

The spoon rested on the saucer where sweetened coffee puddled. Mom sighed, slowly turned her head, and looked out the window at the leafless trees. She asked her daughter if she would like a muffin.

Sound familiar? Have conversations like this occurred in your family? Or do you wish they would?

Over and over I hear adult children lament that they are so confused on how to plan to help their currently self sufficient parents when and if the need arises. Some adult children just want to keep their head in the sand and hope with a little bit of luck this “issue” will go away. Sorry to burst your bubble, but it won’t.

But how to handle or not handle these concerns is extremely important. If not addressed, all sorts of things can happen that will take the decision making out of your hands….and not in a good way.

Where and how do you start this difficult and seemingly invasive, personal conversation? Should the adult child initiate it? Should the senior parent? What to do? What to ask?

Actually, there are a few ways to approach this delicate subject for both generations. It is so much easier if the senior parent brings up the topic. After all it is their information that needs sharing. But if that is too uncomfortable for either or both parties, then the senior parent can choose a professional who can help with the process..

An attorney specializing in elder law, a spiritual advisor, a financial expert, or even a trusted friend might be an option. Actually a professional is recommended if finances allow since it will make the process less emotional.

But if “keeping it in the family” works, then by all means do it!

Sometimes the adult child has the kind of relationship with her parents that allows for these intimate matters to be discussed. What a blessing! The adult child needs to put herself in her parents’ position. How would you feel if you had to discuss these matters? Remember your parents have been, well, your parents for forever and now the tables are turning. It is so new for everyone. No one wants to give up their independence and have to think about “those” matters.

So step into your parent’s shoes first before the conversation even begins. And don’t have this conversation between picking up the kids at soccer or over the phone or in the car. This is a “sit down, help me understand, I love you” kind of talk. And it might take a few attempts and maybe even produce some tears on everyone’s part. That’s ok. Let things flow. The important thing is to take your time. Honor what you are being told even if you don’t agree! This is your parent’s life you are discussing, not yours. Your time will come soon enough.

Just start somewhere. But where? Here are a few of the important items that need to be discussed and shared:
• Bank accounts, investments and other financial matters; don’t forget to provide passwords, account numbers, etc.
• Incomes, current bills
• Health records; make sure the designated person has the permission and authority to talk to the doctor and other medical personnel. Get it in writing and keep a copy!
• Medications
• Insurance policies
• Tax information
• Important papers such as Marriage, Divorce, Military, Trusts, Wills, birth certificates, Powers of Attorney, etc.
• Names and contact information of advisors such as bankers, accountants, attorney, doctors, spiritual advisor, life insurance representative, etc.
• Where they want to live out their senior years; in their home, in a retirement community, with you? What can they afford?

Remember, if medical or financial advisor who is assisting you is out of state, there may be the need to make sure both states have the right paperwork and recognize each other. Don’t just assume.

So, now you have some beginning steps on how to start and what to ask. The next question is have you started getting this information in place for your own children?

Susan Cunningham is a retired Certified Senior Advisor and Aging in Place Specialist, specializing in helping seniors and their adult children as they begin to face aging issues. She is author of the book Unwrapping The Sandwich Generation and has been a national speaker and television host.

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