The Life Transition Blog

Having the Talk with Your Parents

One of the questions I’m asked most often is, “How do I start talking with my aging parent about the inevitable?” On the flip side, I have been asked, “How do I talk with my children about the inevitable?” Why is it so hard for so many families to have this important conversation?

For some, death and dying is taboo. We just don’t talk about it even though we all know intellectually that it will happen to each of us. In other cases, it’s talking about money that’s taboo. People of a certain generation were raised to keep their financial life a secret even from those closest to them. Many adult children are afraid to bring up the subject because they fear that their parent will assume that they are just after their inheritance. Still others worry that they will depress their parent by raising the topic. On the other side of the coin, many parents don’t want to burden their children or think that it will upset them if the parent brings up their own end of life wishes.

From either vantage point, having “the talk” isn’t the easiest thing to do but there are ways to approach it that get the job done with as little stress as possible. So, for all of you adult children and aging parents, here’s a guide to get you started. Beware! Since I’m writing for both sides of the equation, I’ll be letting you all in on the dirty little secrets the other side might use on you!

My first suggestion is to simply encourage you to talk with your parents (or children) about their (your) plans and preferences for where and how they (you) want to age and the documents and resources you’ve put in place to allow you to do so. However, if that’s just too difficult for your family situation then you might have to resort to some more roundabout approaches. While it is best for this conversation to be open, honest, and straightforward, I’ve been doing this long enough to know that’s often just not reality.

One way to start the conversation with your parent might be to ask for advice. If you are doing some of your own planning then you can ask for their input and suggestions. As a part of this conversation you will likely have the natural opportunity to ask what plans they have made. Perhaps you’ve seen your friends struggle with the role of caregiver or financial supporter and you’d like to avoid some of the stress. Talk with your parent about what your friends are experiencing. Ask them if they have any suggestions that you can pass along, and then be sure that you make note of those suggestions for future reference.

For you seasoned parents, sit your kids down and share the plans you’ve made. If you have your affairs in order, let them know this. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing all of the details, at least let your children know where to find them in the event you are incapacitated or die suddenly. If you don’t know how to start the conversation, consider asking someone from outside the family to facilitate. I’ve found that it is much easier for many families when I ask the tough questions and makes notes regarding the answers then when they attempt to do this on their own. You will likely find that your children thank you for preparing them for their future responsibilities.

As the old saying goes, the only sure thing is death and taxes. The earlier you take on the task of talking with your family about these matters, the less likely that they will become the elephant in the room every time you get together. Then, if your kids feel you need more help with day to day activities they will have an idea about what you’d like to happen and the resources that you have available to make it happen.
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