Ever since her father passed away last year, Jayne has tried to talk with her 75-year-old mother about how she’s managing her personal finances. “I’m fine,” is all Jayne’s mother will say. “You don’t need to worry about me.” Jack hits the same proverbial brick wall with his 80-year-old father. Are his investments still providing the monthly income they used to? Is he still paying the bills on time? Jack can’t be sure—because his father refuses to discuss it.
Unfortunately, stories like Jack and Jayne’s are all too common. Elderly parents seem to have a knack for avoiding conversations about finances with their adult children—and even if you’re lucky enough to get one started, it’s likely to get sidetracked before any real progress is made. Frustrated, you may be wondering if it’s ever possible to have a meaningful, respectful, drama-free conversation about money with your parents?
After more than 30 years working with seniors and their family caregivers, I can say with confidence that the answer to that question is a resounding “Yes!” But that doesn’t mean the conversation is going to be easy—for either one of you. I have met many adult children who readily admitted that they would rather talk with their kids about sex than talk to their parents about their finances!
What Makes Talking About Money So Difficult?
Thanks to a wide range of social and cultural norms, talking about money is often taboo, even in the best of circumstances. Add in the challenges that come with aging, and it’s no wonder adult children and their elderly parents typically come up against so many roadblocks.
Why is talking to your elderly parents about money so uncomfortable? Over the years, I’ve found that the discomfort stems from a combination of factors, including:
- Generational differences. For seniors of a certain age, it’s simply never been good manners or accepted to discuss finances with family members. If this is the first conversation you’ve ever had with your parents about their assets, it’s only natural that the discussion may seem awkward and uncomfortable at first.
- Shame or guilt. Some elderly parents may not feel that they have been successful “enough.” Sadly, they may fear that a discussion about their personal finances will lead you to that same conclusion.
- Ignorance. Your elderly parent may not be aware of how to properly manage their finances. Perhaps they are coping with cognitive decline, or maybe they were never involved with their finances to begin with. If this is the case, it’s easier to avoid your questions than deal with the embarrassment they feel from not knowing.
- Paranoia. You know you have only the best intentions. But questions about money can seem especially intrusive to a senior who is already feeling vulnerable because of all the other challenges associated with aging.
- Wanting to remain the parent. By sharing information about their finances, your elderly parent may fear you will want to take over or try to influence how they handle their money. Most seniors want to stay in control and maintain their independence. As a result, they may opt to avoid the subject as much as possible, saying “Don’t worry about me. I’m handling it just fine.”
- Hoping to avoid unfinished business. Money means different things to different people, and just broaching the subject can activate so-called “old tapes” from childhood, a past job, a failed marriage—you name it. Conversations about money can push your elderly parent’s buttons, and yours, too. But here’s the good news: Once you’re aware of this dynamic, you can set up the discussion in a way that’s the least traumatic.
Tips for Talking to Your Elderly Parents About Money
Now that you have a better understanding of the reasons why your elderly loved one avoids talking about their finances, it’s time to work on a strategy so you can have the meaningful, respectful, drama-free conversations you need to have. Here are a few suggestions to help you get started:
- Find the right time. No one likes to feel rushed, ambushed, or that their private business is being made public. Avoid talking about finances when you’re pressed for time, sitting around the holiday dinner table, surrounded by lots of people, or in an unfamiliar setting.
- Explain why you’re having this conversation. Be upfront about what kind of information you need and why you need it. Articulate your genuine concerns and be open to listening to theirs, as well. Open and honest dialogue is critical, especially if you have never had this kind of conversation before.
- Limit the information you need to gather. Don’t go overboard. Asking for too much all at once can seem overwhelming. If you need more than one or two pieces of information, consider staggering multiple conversations over several days or weeks.
- Normalize the process. Stories about how other people benefit from talking about their finances can help your elderly parent feel more comfortable about sharing information with you. For example, you might introduce the topic with something like, “Joe and I just finished some work with our financial planner, and I have to tell you, I feel so relieved now. Mom, did you and Dad ever meet with someone?”
- Share how difficult these conversations are for you, too. A little empathy can go a long way towards putting your elderly loved one at ease. Let them know that you’re feeling a bit awkward, too, even though you know how important and helpful conversations about money can be.
- Acknowledge that financial planning can be confusing. Start with the basics. I recently helped my in-laws by creating a simple one-page document that summarized their assets and the contact information for important people related to those assets.
- Identify where your elderly parent can maintain control. Keep your loved one an active participant in the process. For instance, they can determine when certain events need to happen, which professionals they want to meet with, which sibling will be named as “agent” on advanced directives, etc.
- Don’t go it alone. Turn to other family members, friends, and service professionals for help and support. If your situation is “emotionally charged,” you may find great value from using an objective third party, such as a Life Care Manager, who can help facilitate the discussion and ensure issues are raised respectfully.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to work together with your elderly parent. You do not want to be perceived as someone who wants to come in and take over. Instead, be sure to let them know that you are proud of what they have created and that you truly appreciate the opportunity to work with them to create a more secure financial future.