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Tackling Those Tough Financial Discussions Tactfully

Caregiver's Home Companion

Not long ago, I asked my elderly mother if she needed help managing her finances.  My mother—a physically frail but totally competent woman—stared back in disbelief.  I had asked too soon.

            Aging parents are often reluctant to discuss their financial situation with their children, and the adult children, in turn, are often reluctant to ask.  This uncomfortable minuet, involving issues such as trust and power, often means that important financial decisions are made under the worst of circumstances, such as when a parent suddenly becomes ill or incapacitated. 

            “Finances are one of the hardest things to talk with parents about because they represent freedom and independence,” says Brette Sember, author of The Complete Legal Guide to Senior Care.  “I think you need to gradually become involved unless there is a crisis.  One of the easiest ways to do this is to talk about a friend, family member, or something in the news that somehow relates to the topic.” This can be the much-needed “jumping off point” to personalize the discussion with them. 

            Remember, parents’ reluctance often stems from their fear of giving up their independence.  But waiting for a crisis isn’t the answer either.  Once parents have had a stroke or moved into the advanced stages of dementia, they may not be able to give you the legal authority to act on their behalf.  It is important to open lines of communication long before the real need for assistance arises. 

            “Introduce the topic as an advance planning ‘what if’ situation,” Sember says.  “Then talk about the possibilities together.  Instead of telling your parent what to do, offer suggestions, information, and assistance.  It can be helpful to meet with an attorney who specializes in Medicaid planning.”


Planning Ahead

So, when is the right time to discuss an elderly family member’s financial situation? Obviously, it’s different for every family.  Some parents may initiate the discussion.  Others may never be ready.  But experts agree that the age-old mantra, “the earlier the better,” is key. 

            To prompt the conversation, try talking about your own finances.  Experts suggest the adult caregiver speak from their own experience—such as, “We are getting our finances in order, and have learned from our financial planner that…” This can be a good lead in to “Who has helped you with your finances?” and other questions pertaining to their specific investments and financial portfolio. 

            It’s also very helpful to give them time to digest the idea of the discussion.  Do not expect a “big” conversation after years of silence on the subject. 

            What’s more, these conversations should never be in the tone of “I need to know.” Rather, the conversations should take place over time so that the parents’ comfort level increases.  And have “the talk” wherever they are most comfortable—their house, their favorite restaurant, even the beach.  Also find a low pressure time to talk.  You can’t control everything, but you can control whether there is a toddler running around, whether the phone is ringing, or whether it is an emotional time such as at a wedding or during the holidays. 

            “One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is jumping and telling the parent that you’re taking over,” Sember says. “This situation requires tact and sensitivity.  Think how you would feel if someone came into your home and told you that you weren’t capable of being independent.”

            Adult children need to ask some key questions, such as: Do their parents have legal documents and where are they located?  Where are bank accounts? What financial consultants have they worked with?  Do they have a will or trust established?

            Although elderly parents may give the impression that they are in control, adult children need to watch for telltale signs of financial management problems. 

            Children also should be available to help during life-changing times, such as a death of a spouse, selling a home, or remarriage.  Again, ask if assistance is needed, but don’t push too hard.


In the Know

The amount of information you need to know depends on the extent of your parents’ investment portfolio and assets and their physical and mental condition. 

            According to Marion Somers, PhD, eldercare expert and author of Elder Care Made Easier, you must determine:

  • Your parents assets
  • Their monthly income
  • Their monthly expenses
  • Any predetermined future expenses

Once you do that, she says, you should have a good idea where your parents stand financially.

            “However, due to the complexity of some financial issues, it is always a good idea to rely on the advice and expertise of a skilled professional such as an accountant, elderly care lawyer, a financial advisor, and/or a tax expert,” Somers says.  “Trying to tackle the situation alone could lead to legal snarls and become a drain on your checkbook.  Professional expertise could save you money, headaches, and ultimately lead to significant savings of your parents’ finances.”

            Depending on your loved one’s mental prowess, you may also want to obtain a power of attorney, which allows one person (who must be mentally competent when to power is given) to give another person specific authority to handle financial affairs.  A power of attorney can be limited—for example, to handle a designated piece of real estate—or it can cover all financial transactions. 

            You may also want to contact your parents’ banker and ask them to alert you if there are any worrisome charges in the accounts, such as withdrawal of an unusually large amount of money.  Such things as automatic payment of recurring bills and direct deposit of Social Security and pension checks can help eliminate burdensome financial tasks. 

            If years of family dynamics made the topic of financial management too hot to handle, try calling in a trusted friend or a professional financial planner.  The state or county office on aging in your parents’ area may offer specific services that can help.




Elercare.gov at www.eldercare.gov is operated by the US Department of Health and Human Services and features an elder-care locator to help you locate resources to assist with financial-related questions.


National Council on Aging at www.ncoa.org features downloadable books and pamphlets on several senior financial topics.


AARP at www.aarp.org covers a wealth of financial-related topics for seniors and their caregivers.

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