Dear Carol: My parents, both 83, preached that talking about finances is rude. They’ve made wills and powers of attorney for health and finances, so I’ll give them that, and I’m the designated POA. The problem is that I don’t have any idea if they have enough saved for something like assisted living or in-home help or even if their bills get paid.
Years back, they struggled because of job layoffs, so money has always been a problem. Since I will be the one to handle things eventually, I think I need to know more now. How do I approach this taboo subject? — GL.
Dear GL: Money is a hard topic for many families. Why? Often, the reluctance stems from just what you mentioned. Other people’s finances seem too personal to talk about. Additionally, parents don’t like to worry their kids, so some who struggle financially may be even less likely to share information than those who are well off.
Older adults who have financial challenges may also fear judgment. The current jargon implies that older adults without deep financial resources didn’t plan ahead. That’s true for some. Many, though, have tried, but they’ve either lost savings or never were able to accumulate savings because of late-life layoffs, devastating health events or health care costs in general. They struggle in ways they don’t want to reveal to their children, so they resist sharing information. This will backfire, but it’s human.
How do you convince reluctant older parents to start sharing needed information? I’ve found that news stories can open potentially uncomfortable dialogues because sharing a story that you read or heard in the news can plant the seed without seeming confrontational.
Another approach is that if you hear about a friend or acquaintance of your parents who left their kids a financial mess when they died, bring this up when you're chatting with your parents. What happened to this family is sadly common when parents don’t arrange legal access or share essential information, so use this opportunity to tell your parents that you’re grateful for what they’ve done. Again, conversations like this plant a seed that may encourage your parents to be more open.
Another favorite of mine is to be more open about your own finances. Share your victories, but also let them know when you’re concerned about your 401(k). Tell them about the time you caught credit card fraud or a bank error because you do the management online and check your accounts weekly. I’m not saying that you should worry them (parents do worry), but if you open up about your own finances during casual conversations, that might help normalize the idea that sharing financial information is good.
Remember that you’re unlikely to convince parents who are reluctant to share information with you to immediately change their views. The idea is to alter the dynamic in your family to make talking about financial ups and downs not just acceptable in a crisis, but a normal part of a wide-ranging casual conversation.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran caregiver and an established columnist. She is also a blogger, and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories.” Bradley Bursack hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached through the contact form on her website.