Talking with aging parents about money

March 01, 2002|BY LYNN F. LITTLE

It can be difficult to determine when a family member - because of failing health - needs help with legal or financial matters.

Often, adult children do not step in because they can't accept their parents' aging. Many families do not discuss finances until a crisis occurs, when it may be too late. With little or no planning, financial affairs become disorganized and procedures become costly and complicated.

Planning ahead won't prevent all the problems, but it allows more effective action. Planning ahead can ensure that an elderly family member's choices are known; it can increase financial management options, and reduce disagreements among siblings about "what Mom and Dad wants." Outside help can reduce some tensions and really helps if the family communicates poorly about money and decision-making.

Ask yourself why you are talking about finances with your relative. If you are too emotionally involved, ask another person to help you see the situation objectively. Reflect on past decisions and consult with other caregivers who are in similar situations.


This will help you decide timing, prevent mistakes and consider what the care receiver would do in a similar situation. Are there reasons to be concerned about his/her ability to manage finances?

To understand your relative's needs - especially if you are a long-distance caregiver - you may need to involve others, including family members, health care providers, neighbors, business or delivery people.

Ask what they see as your loved one's remaining skills, what has changed, what problems exist, is the need temporary or permanent, and will the change harm this person's health or others. If dementia/physical limitations are suspected, a care manager, nurse or social worker who specializes in evaluating the needs of ill individuals can give objective, professional advice.

Try to understand your relative's perspective about accepting help or giving up independence. This is traumatic and stressful. Make plans "with" someone instead of "for" someone. Ask your elderly family member what he or she wants.

Family meetings can help bring family members into the discussion. If an older person sees his ideas being implemented, he becomes invested in making a decision work. Tasks decided upon must be within the skill level of the family member, except when mental or memory capacity is reduced.

Decisions, however, should not burden others unnecessarily, so set limits on what you and other family members can do.

Recognize your relative's right to take risks and accept that you can't force or overrule the decision if it does not put others at risk. Do not blame yourself or allow others to blame you. Communicate your concerns - how you will be affected as a consequence of these decisions. Understand first what you want to convey.

Do not begin with the goal of getting the person to do what you want or to save your inheritance. Some guidelines for helping someone with finances, with the least amount of tension, are:

- Give your family member as much control as possible.

- Involve him and keep him informed.

- Respect his privacy.

- Accommodate changes.

- Be patient as the older person processes all the ramifications; understand they may move back and forth from acceptance to refusal.

- Try to use good listening skills. Allow elders to talk about their feelings without being judgmental or critical. Resist pressuring your older relative for immediate closure. It is important for you to respect the strength and abilities they have remaining.

- Clarify roles. As an adult child, express your needs or priorities as they relate to the older relative. We all need to be assured and to go on with reasonable boundaries. Be clear, share and keep the focus on the elderly person.

Sound, compassionate decision-making is a skill that requires preparation, cooperation and practice.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences extension educator with the Maryland Cooperative Extension, Washington County. The Maryland Cooperative Extension's programs are open to all citizens without regard to race, color, gender, disability, religion, age or national origin.

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