The Family Conversations You Shouldn’t Put Off


by Joan Blumenfeld, MS, LPC

Important conversations with your parents about their future can be really difficult. They have managed their lives very well without your interference, thank you very much! They may appear to be stubborn and inflexible, but in reality their attitude has an undercurrent of fear: fear of losing independence; fear of losing control; and, ultimately, fear of death. So it’s no wonder these conversations can be tense and emotional.

Nevertheless, you can all agree on at least one thing: the goal for the future is for your parents to live as independently as possible, for as long as possible. In the interest of achieving that goal, it is imperative that you talk with your parents about their future before there’s a medical, financial or emotional crisis. These conversations can never be too early but can easily be too late.

So here are 10 topics to discuss, and the sooner, the better. They are listed in order of least likely to be emotionally charged for most families, beginning with the simplest of requests, updating all personal information. Recognize that these conversations are a long-term process, not something to be rushed through or approached clumsily. Respect, affection and humor are excellent tools to employ when discussing such delicate matters, but resistance and disagreement should be expected along the way. The overall purpose, though, is to help your parents as they age and to make their late-life transitions as smooth as possible.

  1. Personal information. Do you know your parents birth dates? Social Security numbers? Places of birth? Their parents’ names and places of birth? Dates of marriage/divorces/spousal deaths? These are some of the questions you may be asked if your parents are no longer able to answer for themselves, and the information can oftentimes be hard to dig up.
  2. Home and car maintenance. Do you know who mows the lawn? Plows the driveway? Repairs the appliances? Does the housecleaning? Supplies the heating oil? Where is the septic system? Who holds the mortgage and how much is it for? Do you know where the car is serviced? Where the keys are? Auto insurance?
  3. Medical support. Who is their primary care physician? Who are the specialists? Do the doctors have your parents’ permission (required by law) to speak with you? Who is their pharmacist? What medications are they taking and are they taking them properly?
  4. Social support. Who are their close friends? Who are their neighbors? Who can be counted on in an emergency? Do they have a religious affiliation or belong to any clubs that are interested in their wellbeing?
  5. Insurance. What insurance policies are in effect? Life? Health? Home? Personal property? Car? Who is their agent? What are the premiums and when are they due?
  6. Credit cards. Which credit cards do they use? Where are they? What are the current balances?
  7. Material possessions. Who owns the home? Where is the deed? Inquire about other possessions, such as boats, paintings, jewelry, safe deposit boxes, etc. Car title? Ask about hiding places for prized possessions.
  8. Legal documents. Do they have wills? Powers of attorney? Advance Directives/living wills? Trusts? Are they up to date? Where are they located? Do you have copies?
  9. Burial plans. What is their preference: burial or cremation? Preferred burial location? Is the plot prepaid? What kind of memorial services do they want?
  10. Financial assets. What are their assets and how much are they worth? (Assets matter in planning for the older adult just as they do when planning for children. Maybe even more so!) Where are their bank accounts? Brokerage accounts? Pensions? Annuities? IRAs? Keoghs? 401(k)s? Other accounts? Are there agents for any of these? Who are they?

Obviously, some of this information will be easy to compile and some won’t. But gradually creating an atmosphere of respect and concern for your parents’ welfare will allow for more openness as time goes by. You are all in this together — the more you’re able to share concerns and information, the smoother the inevitable transitions of old age will be. You might even start the conversation by showing this blog to your parents.

Pearl of wisdom: Consulting with a Geriatric Care Manager is a useful way to get tips and tools for approaching these difficult conversations in a non-confrontational way.

Joan Blumenfeld, MS, LPC, is a Geriatric Care Manager practicing in Fairfield County, CT. For information, visit © Joan Blumenfeld 2013.

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