The questions about parents’ finances often come up when a parent starts to need some help. Basics like shopping, cooking or bathing can become too difficult for an elder with chronic illness, frailty and problems with memory. It may have started at retirement when income became fixed but unpredictable expenses weren’t figured into the cost of living. You, the adult children grow concerned that Mom or Dad need to spend more now for new things in their lives, such as paying a caregiver. You ask questions. Often there is push-back from the parent: “That’s not your business!” In your mind there is fear that the cost of these new expenses will fall on you. It might! But at least you want to find out what they have available to cover these things, right? It can be very frustrating when they avoid the subject.
Resistance to talking finances
Financial means is often an emotional subject, particularly for a parent who lived through the Great Depression, and saw family, friends and associates lose fortunes overnight. The impact of that time on the generation suffering the most from it has not disappeared. At AgingParents.com, where we see that money is often a subject of family conflict, sibling arguments and parental resistance, there are recurring themes. They revolve around the parents’ belief that their kids will take care of them if they run out of money. And since most parents do not want to be a burden to their children, (that’s what they say anyway), they may be embarrassed to reveal that they have little saved or that they have debt. One not need to have lived through the Great Depression to have this belief that there’s nothing to worry about, as their kids owe to them to care for them.
In truth, whether a parent believes it or not, there are plenty of adult children who do not want the burden of taking care of an aging parent. They may feel guilty about it but they do not hesitate to express that sentiment when we speak with them. I hear from one or the other that the aging parent is a grouch, or was always angry when they were growing up, or that the parent has become very difficult now that she has memory loss. The aging parent’s expectations do not match those of their adult kids. The question of how to pay someone else to do the caregiving job looms uncomfortably.
What can families do about this? One can be frustrated when the parent changes the subject and you put it off again, or you can take another approach. We recommend that those who may have to take on the financial or other burden of caregiving first meet with each other, in the absence of the parent(s) and figure out who is best equipped to bring up the topic of finances with aging parents. If you are an only child, you may need an ally. Someone in the family who empathizes, or a friend your parent respects can help.
The meeting among kids should have a goal. Decide what to do if you think your elder is hiding their financial status from you because the news would be bad or if they are afraid you might take advantage of them if they seem to be well fixed. The truth has to come out. Set a date to meet with your aging loved one and let them know you all agree that some planning for the future needs to happen. After a birthday, anniversary or other occasion can be good, as it is a reminder of time passing.
One of the first things is to reassure aging parents that you have no intention of taking advantage of them nor of disrespecting their wishes. You need to express your worries: fear that they going to run out of funds to pay for help. Be honest in discussing that not everyone is willing or able to provide hands-on caregiving. And if the need increases for paid help or a different living situation as age takes its toll, a plan to cover these costs must be in place so all can be prepared.
The subject can trigger anger in a parent who realizes that he or she has to hear this with offspring joining forces on the subject. But it may break down the secrecy and allow everyone to work on the truth of their situation. Adult children who find out that a parent has credit card debt, for example, may be more adept at consolidating and managing it than the parent was. Access to parents’ bank accounts online can be very helpful. Aging parents may need help keeping track of and paying their bills. And if they do not have the means to pay for caregiving when needed, exploring their possible eligibility for public benefits can be explored.
Takeaways: yes, finances can be an emotionally loaded subject, but if you have a plan, unite with siblings to address it with your elders and set a date to bring it up, it will be far better than a nasty surprise down the road. Getting past aging parents’ resistance and your own discomfort can save your sanity.