Sunday, October 16, 2011

Talking to my children about getting old

I’m 66.  I’m fortunate that my health is pretty good and that I’m still working and living an active, and (I think) productive and full life.  But I can feel the aging taking place in me – in my vision and hearing and those aches that have developed in various parts of my body.  And I know that the time has come, perhaps it is well past time, for me to get together with my children and talk about issues relating to my aging. 

Some people refer to this as “the conversation” and dread it. But given my life experience as an elder law attorney, and as former child of aging parents, I recognize that it’s better to prepare the ground for the future.  I know that problems can be avoided and burdens reduced if families plan in advance.  
I’m not saying that the time has already come for my children to step in – it’s too early for that. When children try to take over too early it can lead to embarrassment and humiliation for the parent.  But it is time to prepare for the future day when they may need to step in – and to give them the tools and advance support that they will need. It’s time for my children to gain at least some awareness of my financial, estate planning, and health care arrangements. 

So the time has come to start “the conversation” – which I don’t see as a single event but as an ongoing dialogue that will continue over the coming years. Our lives and circumstances and attitudes change over time.  If I get there, I expect that my perspective on life will be very different at age 90. Certainly my health and financial situations will have changed.  I need to keep my children updated. 

But, of course, care dependency due to accident or illness can arise suddenly at any time. Whenever it might occur, I know that my long term illness would affect my whole family.  My children would have to step into new caregiver and care advocate roles.  It would be a big transition for them that I know will go much more smoothly if our family has prepared in advance.

Emotionally, these are difficult issues for parents to discuss with children.  No one likes to think that a day may come when they won’t be able to manage their finances or make other decisions. And many parents do not want to disclose information about their finances and other personal matters to their children. Moreover, discussion of such topics usually makes both the parent and the children uneasy. As a result, many families don’t talk about these issues until a crisis occurs; then, unfortunately, it may be too late.

But there are many potential advantages to having the conversation and planning in advance.  We can:
·       Give our children the opportunity to know what we want and don’t want.
·       Limit the possibility that our children will step in too soon;
·       Reduce future emotional pain for our family;
·       Increase our potential to remain independent and in control of our lives for as long as possible;
·       Give our children the legal powers they will need if they ever do have to step in;
·       Reduce the stress and anxiety involved if our children have to make difficult decisions during a time of crisis;
·       Reduce financial problems and losses and protect our financial security;
·       Help ensure that the right person will be making the right decisions for us if we ever lose the capacity to make decisions ourselves;
·       Increase the potential that we will always be treated with dignity and respect;
·       Reduce the potential for family disagreements;
·       Protect our assets from the cost of any care we may need;
·       Help ensure that our personal preferences and choices are known and will be followed;
·       Limit the potential involvement of courts and state protective service agencies in our lives. 

Children do not have to know everything about their parent’s lives.  They don’t need exact facts and figures.  But there are some key pieces of information that should be shared:
·       Financial Power of Attorney - Who is to serve as financial decision maker in the event of the parent’s incapacity?  Has a power of attorney been prepared to provide authorization? Where is the power of attorney document located? How can the family obtain it when needed?
·       Health Care Agent - Who should make health care decisions for the parent in the event of an accident or illness?  Where is the legal authorization located? Has the parent given instructions for treatment in the event of terminal illness or permanent coma?
·       Income, Assets and Debts - It is not necessary for the children to have a listing of the parent’s income and assets, but they should know where to get this information if it is ever needed.  If it is not provided to the children, it could be held by the parent’s lawyer, accountant, or a trusted friend. 
·       Health Insurance - children should be aware of their parent’s health insurance coverage including retirement benefits, Medicare, Medicaid, Veterans, and long term care insurance.
·       Wills, Trusts, and Life Insurance Policies.  The children should know where these documents are located. 

The best time to discuss future legal, financial and health care decisions is when the parent is healthy and competent.  When and where the initial conversation should take place and who should be present are issues you should consider in advance.  Some parents want to include as many family members as possible.  If so, a family get-together on a holiday may present a relaxed opportunity. 

Should all of the children be included?  Should children’s spouses be present as well? Your answers will vary depending on your family situation.  As a general rule, it is helpful if you can include all of the children in the meeting.  Excluding a child may only cause problems later.  If the family situation is tense, you may want to include the parent’s lawyer or financial advisor in the meeting. The presence of this professional “outsider” can help keep things objective and more businesslike.  

Often it is the children who are most hesitant to begin the conversation with their parents.  It is only natural to want to postpone thinking about difficult issues - life without the parent or a parent who needs care.  Children who were once so dependent on the parent may have difficulty accepting the reality that someday the roles may be reversed. 

Families can benefit greatly if they can overcome their natural reluctance to discuss and plan for the future.  Talking and planning in advance is a great kindness that parents and children can do for one another.  Someday it may be of immeasurable help to the entire family.  And there is one immediate benefit - after the discussion, everyone usually feels like an enormous burden has been lifted off their shoulders.    

{The picture included above is one of me and my children in 1981}

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