It's right up there with debt, bankruptcy and those dreaded taxes.
We're talking about taboo financial topics we avoid discussing with others because they're just too personal.
When it comes to our parents, most of us can add another subject to that list: eldercare.
And when we say most, we mean it: According to a 2014 study from Fidelity, 75% of adult children and their parents think it’s important to have honest conversations about things like wills and end-of-life wishes—yet 64% can’t agree on when.
Parents typically wait until after they retire to have "the talk," but many adult children prefer it happen sooner—well before a health or financial emergency strikes.
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“A high proportion of decisions are only made when there's a crisis," says Paula Span, author of "When the Time Comes" and The New Old Age blogger for the New York Times. "But there should be a series of conversations—and they should begin when people are in good health and able to make their own decisions.”
Some experts suggest kicking off this conversation when adult children hit 40 and their parents reach the age of 70—often referred to as the 40/70 rule.
But regardless of what age you are, broaching the eldercare conversation can be tricky—not to mention charged with emotion. We reached out to experts for their advice on what to ask and their top eldercare discussion dos and don’ts.
1. What's in your will?
All adults—especially those with children—should have estate planning documents.
“Any of us could be in an accident and puncture a lung tomorrow, and as a result not be able to speak for ourselves or need help paying bills while in rehab,” Span says.
The Do ... Rather than flat-out ask what's in your parents' will, opt for a more subtle approach by saying, "We're doing our estate planning now, and I was wondering how you guys handled things."
If you present it as though you're asking for guidance, it can make your parents feel like they’re imparting life lessons—rather than being interrogated.
“It diffuses the generational divide,” says Steve Hartnett, associate director of education for the American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys.
“And I always like to ask open-ended questions to see where the discussion goes,” Hartnett adds.
To Hartnett's point, Stephanie Braudrick of A Place for Mom, a senior living referral service, suggests a question like: "By the way, is there anything that we need to be prepared to handle as a family should something happen to you?”
Depending on how open and comfortable your parents are, you can then delve deeper and find out how they weighed guardianship issues, chose an executor—and who that person is.
But tread carefully. If your parents aren’t offering particulars beyond the fact that they have a will, don’t push.
The Don't ... This isn't a time to call an emergency family meeting. The eldercare conversation is best done one-on-one, so consider designating a point person within the family to approach one parent and then report back to others.
“Managing by committee—where you’ve got three or four children that are sitting Mom and Dad down and having that conversation—rarely goes well,” Braudrick says.
2. How long would you want to be on life support?
A medical or health care power of attorney can designate someone to make decisions for your parents in the event that they’re unable to speak for themselves.
But it's also important to create an advance directive that spells out any wishes regarding medical treatment in writing—and you should know generally what’s in it.
The Don't ... As you can imagine, this is one of the most emotionally charged and personal eldercare questions to broach—and directly asking how long a parent would want to be attached to life support might just shut down the conversation altogether.
The Do ... Nancy Schlossberg, a retired professor of counseling psychology and author of “Revitalizing Retirement," has a more tactful suggestion: “You can say, 'I want to know how you feel about things because you’re in charge. I need to know what you want if something ever happens and you’re not in charge.’”
Along the same lines, funeral arrangements can also be tough to bring up, which is why Molly Carpenter, a caregiver advocate with Home Instead Senior Care and author of "Confidence to Care," suggests waiting for a natural conversation starter.
“You’ve got to look for triggers, such as a funeral or wake,” she says. “Or maybe it’s a news story, or a movie you watched. It’s all about looking for opportunities.”
3. How about we check out that nursing home?
If you’re harboring serious worries that a fiercely independent parent shouldn’t be alone at home anymore, you can voice those fears—but it may not get you anywhere.
The Don't ... Presenting the idea of touring a facility after you've already gone ahead and made an appointment isn't the best tact to take—it will just make Mom feel as if the decision has been made and is out of her control.
The Do ... “What sometimes helps is to enlist the aid of other trusted people,” Span says. “If you see that your mother is falling, and you fear she’s going to break a hip, but she won’t even take up the rugs, maybe you enlist her physician's help [to discuss the possible need to move into a care facility].”
Hartnett says you can also use yourself as an example to get the discussion going early if your parents still have several years before a move may need to happen.
“Say, ‘Betty and I have discussed what we want to do when we’re older, and we’ve decided that we want to move into an assisted living facility,'" he says. "Or it may be, 'We want to stay at home as long as possible, so we are looking into at-home care.'"
Of course, don't forget to consider how you might feel about the wide variety of answers that may pop up—like the desire to move in with you.
"You can say, ‘Hey, I know you’re not there now—you’re a young 70—but can you provide me with a quick list of where I can locate account information if something significant changes with your health?’”
4. How are you planning to pay for long-term care?
Long-term care insurance can help pay for such costly ongoing services as home visits from a nurse, so it's good to know whether or not your parents have a policy.
The Do ... As with other eldercare questions, using your own situation as a jumping-off point is a great way to broach this topic. So you can frame it as: My company is considering offering long-term care insurance as a benefit. Do you guys have it?
Ultimately, you want to get answers to the following questions: If they don’t have a policy, are they planning to get one, or is it too late? And if so, how are they planning to pay for in-home help or outside care later in life?
“Medicare pays for doctors, hospitals and drugs, but it does not pay for long-term care,” Span notes.
The Don't ... If you find that a parent is ill-prepared to cover at-home or outside care costs, don't immediately assume that you'll need to dip into their savings—or even your own.
In some cases, it may be helpful to talk to an elder law attorney to see what options you have, such as if your parent could qualify for Medicaid to pay for long-term care.
5. How much money do you have left?
Your parents are adults, so there’s no need to grill them about account balances—unless you suspect they're in dire financial straits, or you’re actively taking over management of their finances.
But it is a good idea to know where to locate assets, as well as account details, in the event that something should happen to them.
The Don't ... Money is a taboo topic for a reason. So don't expect your parents to react well to being directly asked how much money they have to take care of themselves in old age, or whether they even have enough.
The Do ... This discussion should be couched from the angle of preparedness—and genuine concern for their welfare.
"You can say, ‘Hey, I know you’re not there now—you’re a young 70—but can you provide me with a quick list of where I can locate account information if something significant changes with your health?’” suggests Braudrick.
And since much of our financial lives now happen online, Hartnett says you should encourage your parent to compile a list of user names and passwords and give it to their power of attorney, or keep it in a safety deposit box.
Bottom line: Your parents still maintain control over their financial affairs now, but someone can easily access the information if need be later.