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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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?”
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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”.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.