Few people want to stick their noses into their parents’ business. For many, it’s the last taboo to inquire into your parents’ financial lives. This is one of those “it depends” questions. It isn’t always necessary for you to know every detail about your parents’ financial affairs. In fact, the less you need to know, the more likely they may be to tell you what you should know.
If your parents are still in good health mentally and physically, and are managing their affairs with no need for assistance, then the amount of detail you need to know is limited. They may be reluctant to tell you how much they are worth, or to reveal the contents of their wills. That’s okay. In that case, let them know that your concern is to know where to find important records in the event something happens.
If one or both of your parents are beyond their 80’s or if they are showing some signs of needing assistance with financial matters, then you are going to need to know more than simply where things are. And if you are serving as a conservator, trustee, or exercising authority under a power of attorney, then you have truly become a financial caregiver and will need to know as much as possible about their arrangements.
I use the “Continuum of Dependence” graphic below to visually show how much information an adult child or other family member needs to be aware of depending on the level of dependency someone is experiencing.
The question I am most often asked is “How do I begin the conversation with my parents?” I always answer, “Very carefully.” The truth is there is no one best way to begin the conversation. So much of it depends on circumstances and personality. Circumstances – usually health issues – may be at such a crisis point that you simply must take action with or without your parents’ approval – either by asserting your authority as attorney-in-fact under a valid Power of Attorney, or by seeking a court ordered guardianship or conservatorship. Your proximity to your parents, sibling agreement over what needs to be done (or the lack thereof), whether both parents are living, and the complexity of your parents’ financial affairs are just a few of the circumstances to consider. You also need to act quickly if you begin to notice impulsive spending or investment decisions.
Personality and family dynamics are also factors, and the relationship between child and parent doesn’t always make a lot of sense. Your eighty- eight year old father may still view you as the “baby” of the family even if you are sixty-two years old and have raised a family, managed a medical practice or a business of your own, and are practically retired yourself. You are the baby and you always will be. So before you begin the conversation in the first place, you might want to talk to a family counselor, their personal physician, or clergy member before you set yourself up for resentment. It’s okay if you are not the one to initiate the conversation.
Nevertheless, here are some ideas on getting the conversation rolling that you can try out.
The “I’ve got this friend” technique. This ice-breaker allows you to set up a hypothetical situation involving a real or fictitious friend who is wondering how to talk to their parents about money. It starts something like this: “Mom (Dad), I’ve got this friend who needs to ask her parents some personal questions about their finances, but isn’t sure how to ask. What should I tell her?” Chances are your folks will be on to this one soon after you ask it, and hopefully you can turn it into a good laugh by your honest confession that the “friend” is you. Once the chuckle is over, you can come back to it with a “Well…what would you say?” and just let them talk.
Ask how their friends are doing. Once your parents pass the age of seventy-five, chances are they will be attending more friends’ funerals or visiting more friends in nursing homes. You probably will have known these friends for a long time yourself, as well as the children of these friends. While remaining sensitive to the situation, use these events to ask how their friends are doing. Something like, “Mom, now that Jane is widowed, who is watching out for her?” Or “Dad, it’s sad to see your friend Sam lose his independence like that. Does he have children close by who can help with his business?”
Ask for help with your own finances. If your parents are past seventy, this means you’re probably past forty and are making some important financial decisions yourself. Asking for Dad’s advice on preparing your will or how to invest your retirement funds can go a long way to opening up a dialogue on his own business. Maybe your dad is fully capable of managing his finances now, but this conversation can ease the next one when the time comes for you to be a little more inquisitive.
Use the headlines. Unfortunately, the headlines can give you a lot of ammunition to use to open a conversation about your parents’ finances. All you have to do is google the phrase “financial abuse of elders” and you’ll be provided with dozens of sites and news articles about the vulnerability of seniors for financial scams and high-pressure sales tactics. Print out one of these articles, or clip one from your local newspaper and show it to them. Use an opener like, “I doubt this could ever happen to you, but…” Their response will tell you how open or closed they are to the subject.
Movies are great ice breakers. If your parents’ sight and hearing haven’t diminished, a good movie that deals with the subject of aging is a great ice breaker. One caveat, don’t use movies that are too dramatic or serious. Humorous movies are better at breaking down barriers to talking about this. Also, be sensitive to ratings that may not be comfortable for a generation that may see many of today’s PG-13 movies as too “racy”.
Try point blank honesty. If your parents are cut-to-the-chase kind of folks, then just try being upfront with them. “Mom and Dad, you’re both getting older and quite frankly, you’re not as sharp as you used to be. If something happens to either or both of you, I don’t know where to find your wills, or even where all your accounts are.” You may be surprised at how open they are willing to be if you show a compassionate yet firm resolve.
Ask about their advisors. If your parents use a financial advisor, ask for an introduction, or for permission to attend their next meeting with him or her. Sometimes advisors will be hesitant out of privacy concerns since they are bound to certain confidentiality standards. Getting written permission from your parents that the advisor is free to discuss their situation with you will generally alleviate these concerns.
However you begin the conversation and no matter the reception you get, the point is that the adult child is (and should be) the first line of defense for his or her parents just as they were (or should have been) your first line of defense growing up. Perhaps your past was more tumultuous, and perhaps your present is not conducive to you taking on the responsibility now. But you can be an advocate, and you can be involved to ensure that their financial affairs continue to provide security and dignity in their twilight years.
They say that talking to yourself isn’t crazy as long as you’re not answering your own questions. Well reserve me a padded room because lately I’ve been having conversations with myself, and not just with myself, but with the 78-year-old version of me. Okay, I can hear the footsteps of the men in white coats now.
But seriously, ever since I stumbled on this app that lets you peer into your future self, I’ve been engaged in discussions with my future self – who I call my “Older Me” – on how it feels to be old. It is popular to ask what you might say to your younger self; what lessons you’ve learned and the mistakes you would encourage your younger you to avoid. On the other hand, I’ve rarely seen a discussion on what you would like to learn from the old you. Why is this so? Do we believe that we are at the pinnacle of our attainment of wisdom now, or as I hope not, do we think that the inevitable declines of aging make it unlikely that we will have anything of value to say to us today? Is “eat your fiber” or “slow down” the best we can expect? Furthermore, if we could sit with our old self, how might that change how we treat old people today. How might we honor them more, or treat them with greater dignity? We had better figure this out. National Geographic says there are now more people over age sixty-five than there are under five. Youth will inherit the earth and its governance.
I am currently 58 years old, old enough to be concerned about heart attacks and strokes (my father died at 41 of a heart attack) but too young to have gained much wisdom. By wisdom, I mean sage wisdom, calm, resolved, embracing life and embracing death wisdom. I’d like to think that in 20 years, I will have achieved what Swedish Gerontologist Lars Tornstam calls “gerotranscendence” which can be characterized as follows:
There is an increased feeling of affinity with past generations and a decreased interest in superfluous social interaction.
There is also often a feeling of cosmic awareness, and a redefinition of time, space, life and death.
The individual becomes less self-occupied and at the same time more selective in the choice of social and other activities.
The individual might also experience a decrease in interest in material things. Solitude becomes more attractive.
Has my Older Me become less self-occupied and more cosmically aware? I wanted to know. I’ve condensed my conversations into a Q&A style interview, and I’ve shared several snapshots of me and my Older Me for effect. Truthfully, it’s a little scary, like stepping into a time machine and finding yourself on some celestial fishing pier, with nary a care about anything you care so much about now, or even catching fish, just enjoying the sublime.
An Interview with Older Me
ME: Well, first off this is pretty strange interviewing you since you’re me 20 years from now, but I appreciate you coming in today. Let me know if I need to speak louder or slower.
OM: Okay, but I can hear you just fine, and I’m sure we’ll circle back to this whole assumption that all old people can’t hear thing.
ME: Ahh, sorry. Not a good start. So, can you tell me how you feel?
OM: Pretty good for an old you. Probably better than you feel right now on the inside, but I’m just a little slower and deliberate on the outside.
ME: What do you mean “better than I feel right now on the inside?”
OM: Remember, I am you, so I remember how I felt most of the time on the inside. You worry a lot don’t you? And you spend a lot of time trying to control people and things that you have absolutely no power to control. You wake up with your mind racing, and worry about money, about the kids, about impressing people, and…
ME: Okay, okay…I got it. I’m happy to know you survived my worries. It seems everyone knows what they would tell their younger self. Are there any words of wisdom that you want to give me?
OM: Well, the only thing I’ll say to you is that no matter what I tell you now, you won’t heed it so I won’t waste our breath. There are no short-cuts. Don’t you remember that preacher we heard years ago who defined wisdom as “the intelligent application of failure?” You haven’t failed enough yet. You have a lot more ahead of you. Sorry to disappoint you if you were looking for a simpler answer.
ME: (laughing) So, no plugging into The Matrix and downloading the “wisdom” program?
OM: The what?
ME: The “Matrix”…Keanu Reeves…the blue pill? We loved that movie…Never mind.
ME: Culturally, what is it like being old? Specifically, do you feel honored by society?
OM: That’s much easier to answer for some of my cohorts than for myself. I don’t know that I’ve done many honorable things, but I have not done many dishonorable things either. Honor is a cultural value. A society – which is made up of individuals – should show honor towards all individuals and towards all positions that deserve honor, or that society will disintegrate. As to us old people, I do think the simple fact that we’ve lived this long and experienced more life than some others is a position that deserves honor. There are people I know who are now ninety-eight who are deserving of honor because of that. They can hardly go to the toilet by themselves but dammit they deserve to be honored, and frankly some of the behavior towards them by society or their families, or the medical and so-called “care” communities is appalling. I don’t really want to say anything more about that.
I think I see the glint of a tear in my Older Me’s eye as he’s talking and I’m reminded of two poetic works: one is the song “Hello in There” by John Prine and the other is the poem “The little boy and the old man” by Shel Silverstein.
ME: I want to ask you about death, because you’re closer to it than I am at 58 and I’m curious how you feel about dying?
OM: Oh You think I’m closer to death than you because I’m older? Remember I’m just a figment of your imagination, so let’s face the fact that you could die today, or next week, or next year. Remember our father? You have no guarantees. But I will say this, what you have studied about is true; as I have aged, there is an opportunity to embrace ALL of life from beginning to end and to be at peace with where you are. Everyone your age is concerned about “bucket lists” and assume older folks have no zest for life because we take joy in simple pleasures and don’t want to climb Kilimanjaro or visit a lama herd in Peru. The truth is, most of us are just contented. When you’re younger, it’s hard to imagine having this attitude, and why it’s so much sadder when a young person dies. Time also changes. It passes faster for sure, but it also stands still – sort of like when the Millennium Falcon jumps into light speed and light itself slows down.
ME: (Happy that I remembered that one!) So, it sounds like you’ve found some kind of peace with the end of life. Was this a spiritual thing?
OM: I know where you are. I know you’ve lost faith in Something else beyond you. I know you are a logical cause-and-effect person who has difficulty reconciling the tragedies of life and the randomness of it with any sense of a larger purpose or Divine Mind. I won’t spoil it for you, but you do find your Myth. Call it God, The Universe, The Ultimate Cause, it doesn’t matter, but you do find it.
ME: Ok, wow…Can I ask you how the kids are?
OM: They were always OK. You know you can’t ask about the future.
We break for a few minutes. I wasn’t expecting the conversation to be this heavy. I know I asked about dying and honor, and God and all, but I was hoping I still had my levity and a touch of irreverence. This was to come. I couldn’t help but wonder if I was taking this imaginary discussion too far. Technology – in the form of cheap photography apps – had allowed me to make the appearance of my Older Me all too real, but was this nothing more than an existential experience?
ME: I was still hoping that you could share a few nuggets of wisdom, just two or three simple things.
OM: Maybe I can offer a couple: First, you need to laugh more. Stop trying to be so self-respecting and flat out wheeze-laugh until you think that your heart is about to burst out of your chest. And so what if it does, at least you’ll die laughing.
And with that admonition, my Older Me holds out his index finger, smiles and says “pull my finger.” I’ll spare the details of what happened next but suffice it to say that we both enjoyed a belly laugh for several moments.
ME: (wiping tears of laughter). What else?
OM: Spend less time on that damn thing (pointing to my cell phone). Talk to people. All the surprise of life is taken away because people already know everything about everybody but nothing about anyone.
Pick up the guitar again. You won’t ever be any good at it, but it might keep you from being so F-ing uptight. You’re so uptight I’ll bet you can whistle out your arse!
ME: Right…(any doubt about my irreverence has now disappeared) Is there anything else before we wrap this interview up?
OM: Yeah there is. Love more deeply. You’ve forgotten how but start practicing again. You won’t always have the ones closest to you and the only regret you may ever truly experience is knowing that they’re not around for you to love anymore.
And with that, the conversation ended, though hopefully not for good. Something tells me that my Older Me will visit me again, staying far enough in front of me so that I’ll never catch him, but close enough to recognize as a friend.