Start Talking About Finances With Grandparents


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After their mom died, Mary Lacey Gibson and her siblings started worrying more about their aging dad. They wondered if Joe Lacey would be too lonely in his apartment. They winced when he drove his car through busy city traffic. They hoped he was taking care of his ailing heart. The Lacey children also started talking about their dad’s financial health.

Would his pension be enough for him to live on? Could he afford nursing home care if he ever needed it? Which of the kids would manage Lacey’s personal affairs if he got really sick? None of the kids jumped at the chance to ask Lacey these questions. After all, he was a proud, independent man who showed no signs of slowing down. And even though they were all adults, they were still his kids.

“Our role model for money, growing up, went like this: ‘Dad, how much money do you make?’ ‘That’s none of your business.’ ‘Dad, how much money do we have?’ ‘That’s none of your business,’” Gibson recalls. “It was typical of his generation. We didn’t expect today’s conversation to be any different.”

Asking the tough questions As the Lacey kids can attest, talking about money with aging parents can be tricky — for adult children and their parents alike. Money often represents independence and control to older people, just as it does to young people. It’s not uncommon for elderly parents to get prickly about the subject of their assets, no matter how delicately their children broach it.

Still, talking to your elderly parents about their financial life is a good, loving thing to do, says Lawrence Davidow, former president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA) and an attorney in New York. “You can help your parents decide practical things, like what happens if they become incapacitated and can no longer pay their bills, what kind of long-term care they can afford, and how Medicare and Medicaid come into the picture.”

And Davidow suggests talking about these questions as soon as you can — hopefully well before a crisis hits. Fortunately, there are many positive, nonconfrontational ways to start talking to parents about their finances. And “start” is a key concept, say the experts, because discussions about money and elder care in general usually take place in fits and starts, over several years. Unless your family is faced with a crisis, this will be a process, not a single sit-down conversation.

More than anything else, Davidow suggests keeping your parents’ personalities and your own comfort level with financial issues at the forefront. Does your mom resist money talk out of fear that you’ll step in too quickly and take over? If so, approach the topic slowly and gently, he says. Is your dad a no-nonsense fellow who likes to get things out on the table? A more direct approach may work with him. And if you or other responsible family members are overwhelmed by the idea of helping with your parents’ affairs, Davidow says it’s perfectly OK to seek the help of a financial or legal professional.

Although every family’s talk will be different, here are some strategies to help it go more smoothly:

- Talk about non-money matters first. “Often, the best way to open a discussion with elderly parents is by focusing on personal, not money, issues,” says Martin Shenkman, an attorney in New Jersey and author of Inherit More (John Wiley & Sons, 2003). “Do your parents have a living will? Do they have specific personal wishes or preferences that you suspect they may want respected? Religious preferences? If you open with non-money issues, it’s less offensive. Your parents are less likely to feel you are motivated by greed than by concern for them.”

Linda Aufderhaar, a licensed clinical social worker and geriatric care manager in Virginia, agrees. “Start with something disarming, like ‘Do you need any help deciding which Medicare Part D prescription plan is right for you? I’d be happy to help.’” Offer questions, not ultimatums. In her work as a care manager, Aufderhaar helps adult children and their aging parents with everything from managing parents’ doctor appointments to researching assisted living facilities. Financial issues are always part of their discussions.

“I’ve found that a good overall way to approach your parents about money issues is, ‘I’d like to help if you want me to. I just need to know what role you’d like me to take in this process.’” She suggests introducing the money talk slowly, with lots of gentle questions like: Have you thought about how you’d like to have your finances handled if you become ill? Is there anything I can do to help you manage your money more easily?

“However you phrase it, the message you want to deliver to your parent is: ‘I want you to be in control as long as possible,’” Aufderhaar says. “One of most older people’s biggest fears is losing control. Many of them have gone through a lot of other losses — their driving skills, their health, perhaps the loss of their spouse — and they don’t want to lose control of their finances, too.”

- Watch for openings. When your parent comments on her annual health insurance renewal or asks a question about balancing her checkbook, these are good times to initiate some discussion about Mom and Dad’s financial plans.

“Sometimes your parents are actually giving you keys,” Gibson says. As a professional financial planner, she often gets calls from elderly clients with seemingly unnecessary questions. Over time, she started to realize that these check-ins are her clients’ ways of saying they need a little extra help or don’t have quite as much confidence in their decision-making as they used to.

“When I talk to them about having family or someone else help them with cumbersome financial responsibilities, many of them are just tickled,” Gibson says. “They’re ready for someone else to help handle things. They’d rather travel, work in their garden, play cards or spend time with their grandkids.”

If, however, you see signs that your elderly parent is already having significant trouble managing his money — you notice bills piling up around his house, his electricity gets turned off for nonpayment, he’s significantly confused about his checking account, etc. — forget about just talking. You may need to step in right away, Aufderhaar says. These warning signals could indicate the onset of serious health problems.

- Use the ‘I have a friend’ approach. If your parents are overly private about their money, Aufderhaar suggests mentioning that “someone you know” (whether it’s true or not) consulted a financial planner or accountant to help decide whether they had enough money for their future. If your parents pick up on the topic, you could offer to help them consult a professional. They might be more comfortable baring their financial soul to a pro rather than to their children.

You can find fee-only financial planners through the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (www.napfa.org) and attorneys, for estate planning and other legal matters, through the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (www.naela.org). The National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers (www.caremanager.org) can refer you to professionals who offer a broad range of aging-related services.

Another option: Enlist the help of a trusted pastor, therapist or objective mediator you find through the state or area’s aging services division (see resources). A third party can often help families figure out what kind of financial help the aging parent might need — without the emotion that can bubble up when only the adult children are involved.

- Take it slowly. Gibson and one of her brothers became involved in their dad’s financial affairs over the course of about a year and a half, not after just a single chat. Gibson first talked with her dad about his declining driving skills, admittedly another hot-button issue. However, instead of insisting that he give up his car, Gibson created a cost analysis comparing the high cost of car ownership in San Francisco against the value of public transportation. Gibson won over her dad with her gentle logic. He surrendered his keys.

A few months later, Gibson’s dad called her with a simple question about his life insurance. She knew he was cracking open a private door in his life to her. A little later, the pair talked about Gibson helping her dad with his taxes.

“Each time my siblings and I took something over, it was like a burden was being taken off of him. He had been worrying about these issues, but didn’t know what to do,” Gibson says. “And I made a point to never pressure him. He’s still in charge. My siblings and I are just here to help if he needs it.”

Teri Cettina frequently writes about parenting, family life and finances.

RESOURCES

N.C. Division of Aging & Adult Services, 919-733-3983 • www.dhhs.state.nc.us/aging

Triangle J Area Agency on Aging, 919-549-0551 • www.tjaaa.org

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