During the conversation, we talked about my father’s health. He’s in his mid-sixties and still in pretty good shape, but he’s lost a step or two from when I was a kid. He’s still incredibly active, but he can’t spend a whole day cutting firewood like we would do when I was a kid.
Another interesting aspect of the conversation is that since I’ve moved into parenthood, clearly establishing my own family, my parents have opened up to me about things that they previously didn’t talk about. My parents have revealed to me some minor health scares over the last few years – things they would have never told me about when I was younger. Thankfully, they’re both doing completely fine right now, but those little scares really make clear one fact.
My parents are starting to get old.
In a lot of ways, it’s hard for me to take. I think of my early childhood, when my father was in his thirties and my mother was in her twenties. I remember when I was about ten or eleven and my father would come out in the driveway, pull off his shirt, and we’d play basketball. I remember my mother rolling out of bed in the morning and not slowing down until she fell in bed in the evening, raising kids, canning vegetables, doing laundry, and countless other things. I remember when it seemed like my parents’ house was always full of kids – not just me and my brothers, but countless neighbors and other people. My parents were basically surrogate parents of a lot of kids that lived near us.
Now, it’s just the two of them. My father’s beard has turned white, as has my mother’s hair. They’re both retired and living on Social Security and a pension.
And when I see them, I realize something has happened. We’re moving from the time where they took care of me to the time when I should help take care of them.
But what does that really mean? What kind of help should I provide for my parents? What kind of help do they actually need? What does their situation really look like? Would they be happy if I took an interest, or would they not like it at all?
I know I certainly wonder about these questions, and I have for quite a while. I’ve read through It Pays to Talk multiple times along with countless other articles and materials on the issue, reflecting not only on how to talk to my own parents, but how others can talk to their parents about these issues. Here are the key tactics I’ve found for making it work.
Know where you stand
Before you even think about addressing such a conversation with your parents, spend some time really understanding exactly what you want out of this. Are you authentically expecting a piece of the estate? Will you be authentically hurt if your parents are in a lot of debt that they didn’t tell you about? Why? What if they are making unexpected choices with their estate, like leaving more to one child than another or leaving most of their money to an organization you don’t agree with? How does that make you feel? Would these things make you angry?
At an earlier point in my life, I was often frustrated when I thought about such things. It took me a while to really realize that these choices are my parents’ choices, and theirs alone. My role should just be to help them and to make sure that their wishes and choices are carried out just as they wish. If you still harbor strongly-held opinions on what you think they should be doing (not in terms of specifics, but in general direction), you’ll likely have a difficult time having a constructive conversation. Spend some time reflecting carefully on it and don’t move forward with a discussion until you can do so with a clear mind, a clean conscience, and a clean heart.
Be straightforward and thoroughly honest
Usually, such a talk with your parents isn’t a path you’ll take unless you’re harboring some concerns. You are far better off clearly stating those concerns right up front, as clearly as you can. Say exactly what’s in your mind and in your heart, even if it’s not a comfortable thing to say. If you’re worried about how they’ll pay for their retirement years, say so. If you’re worried about what they expect of you in those years, say so. If you’re worried about whether they’re in a situation where they’ll have to work forever, say so. If you’re worried about their estate planning and whether or not it’s in place at all or whether it actually reflects what they want, say so.
You are a concerned child. You love your parents and you want their final years to be as good as possible. You also want to make sure that their wishes are carried out in the event of their demise. Speak from the heart and make it clear that you love them, care for them, and want these things to happen for them.
Get appropriate people involved
This need not be just a talk between you alone and your parents. You may want to get some or all of your siblings involved with this process as well and perhaps other family friends or relatives involved. Don’t just view this as a situation between you and your parents, because it’s bigger than that – it’s about helping your parents plan their future.
If you’re involving siblings and other members, you may want to talk with them first and suggest that they read this article. They should also be on the side of helping your parents come up with strong and sensible plans for their later years.
Remember, though, that you don’t have to involve others. There may be good reason to just make this a conversation between just you and your parents. Just don’t immediately exclude people when you consider it.
Choose a pleasant and comfortable environment
You should choose an environment and situation for such conversations that makes everyone feel as comfortable as possible. If your parents are still living in the house you grew up in, this is probably the best choice. Make sure everyone involved as some basic amenities available to them – good coffee or other beverages, a simple snack, and so forth. If the place needs straightening up, do it in advance before talking.
The point is to do everything you can to maximize everyone’s comfort level. This discussion is likely to push some comfort zones a bit, so you should take every effort to reduce any other potential intrusions on comfort as well as provide little touches that help reduce inhibitions and raise everyone’s comfort. You’re much more likely to have everyone involve express some candor if everyone feels as comfortable as possible in the situation.
Check your ego (and temper) at the door
It can be tempting to believe that you know the best solution for your parents and that any talk you have about the situation should just be a matter of you telling them what they should do. That’s ego, and it should not be a part of this conversation. Similarly, you may find yourself getting angry at your parents because they aren’t following the same logical path that you would follow. That’s anger, and it shouldn’t be a part of this conversation, either.
Your role here is to be assistance for them unless they ask you to be more than that. You should have your own ideas, of course, but that does not mean your parents should immediately jump on board and follow those ideas. If you find yourself getting angry or frustrated, take a break. Excuse yourself, go to the bathroom, and just sit there for a minute and collect yourself. Remember that these are not your choices. You’re merely trying to help your parents make their own choices.
Ask what they want, not what you want
In many families, there are going to be family political angles to this talk. You might view this situation as competition with your siblings for some share of the estate or perhaps you view this as an opportunity to keep some undeserving child out of the picture.
Don’t. If you go in there with this attitude, you’re focused only on what you want. Such thoughts and goals aren’t about your parents, they’re about you. The purpose of having a talk with your parents about their situation is to help them, not help you. Ask what they want, and abide by it. Don’t tell them what they want – because, likely, that’s what you want – and they’ll know it.
Open the books together
If your parents are in a deep debt situation, they may want to just tell you what the situation is and not show you. The real truth lies in the numbers and raw facts of the situation, and you can’t actually help them without knowing the truth of their situation.
If you find yourself in this situation, suggest that you walk through all of the information together – in fact, this is always a good policy to follow. If they refuse, then you should not give them further advice, since you’d be offering ideas and suggestions based on incorrect information. You can talk about issues such as estate planning, but in terms of helping them or offering help, you can’t make a fair or reasonable offer or suggestion with incorrect or false information as a basis. Tell them that you would love to help them, but you don’t want to mislead them along the way, and leave it at that. They may choose to come around later, but that’s out of your control.
Remember, giving advice based on false data is giving extremely bad advice. You may be driven to help, but giving them advice when you suspect that the underlying information is wrong doesn’t help – it hurts. If you find yourself here, back away in the most pleasant way you can.
Look at what they’ll realistically need at retirement and after
Good topics to cover: their current budget, their current retirement savings, their target retirement date, how they’re saving for retirement, their budget after retirement, and their insurance coverage (especially health insurance and long term care insurance). These together will provide plenty of food for thought for all of you.
Be very clear on their post-retirement plans. Many parents harbor a plan to eventually live with their children, while other parents don’t have any plan at all beyond not wanting to be a bother to you. Encourage them to think about what exactly they want to do when they retire. Do they want to continue to live in their home, or do they want to downsize? What about their later years – are they planning for nursing home care? These are hard questions, but they need to be out there on the table.
Be clear about your role and how you’re willing to help – don’t waffle
Make it very clear what things you’re willing to offer to make the lives of your parents easier in their later years. If you’re open to them moving in with you, say so. If you’re able to provide some regular financial support, say so. If you’re willing to do the detail work of all of their planning, say so. Be very clear about what you can and can’t do to help them.
They may take you up on certain pieces of your offer and not others – and that’s fine. Be open to their needs and ready to help with what they want.
Walk through the necessary estate planning questions
Ask about life insurance. Ask about a will or a living trust. Clarify who the executors and/or trustees on such documents should be. Clarify where the property should be assigned to. Talk about a master information document.
Even more important, if your parents don’t have any of these, offer to help them through the process of setting it up. Quite often, people want to have such things, but they put it off because it seems like a lot of work. Having someone on hand to help you through it makes the process seem more manageable.
Offer, don’t push
When you’re talking, you’re going to have ideas and recommendations for your parents. You might even know the thing they should be doing. Don’t push. Go through the options and add what you would do, but don’t tell them which path to take. Let them make the decision.
You might find that they lean towards a different option than you’d like. Don’t fight them on it, even if you view the choice as not realistic. Instead, be consoled by the fact that they are in fact looking at the situation and making decisions and that you are aware of what those choices actually are. You can then move forward on supporting them in that choice.
Do something pleasant and unrelated afterwards
I’ve found that every time in which I’ve had to have a serious discussion with a friend or a family member on something like this, it’s been helpful to do something very pleasant and unrelated afterwards – like a family meal, for example. Don’t just walk out of the door at the end of the planning – instead, cement the bond you already share.
Remember that this is just the first step in a long conversation. Don’t let the progress you’ve made falter. Follow up on the things you’ve pledged to do, and let your parents know that you’re concerned and are thinking about things as well. This is a process, not a one-time thing, and you need to follow up.
Good luck, especially if you’re like me and this topic has been on your mind for a while.