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Timothy O’Connor: Help parents plan to avoid future problems

Does the thought of asking your aging parents about the way they handle their household finances – or how they’d feel about moving to a nursing home – fill you with anxiety? You are not alone.  

However, you can’t afford to delay this conversation. As your parents get older, it’s important to sit down with them and talk about their health and financial well-being – before urgent decisions are forced on you or your family.

You want to be as prepared as possible to make sound medical and financial choices when Mom or Dad has an emergency.

There are ways to make this process easier. The most important is to plan ahead. Starting these discussions early and revisiting them regularly will help you and your family handle lifestyle-changing issues concerning your parents.

How to start the conversation: If only there was an easy way to speak to mom and dad about their health and finances. That does not exist, but you might bring up the topic around the time the older parent turns 70. Once you start the dialogue, you’ll have laid the groundwork to continue it in the future.

Make sure to involve everyone from the family. Also include your parents’ tax adviser, lawyer and financial adviser.

Medical: On the medical side, you might ask your parents what they’d like to happen if their health starts to fail. Do they want to stay in their home, or are they open to moving to an assisted living or long-term care facility?

If acute care becomes necessary, is there a hospital they prefer? How much medical intervention do they want if their condition becomes dire? How would they like to handle end-of-life issues? 

A meeting with their physicians also can help address some of your parents’ issues or concerns.

The answers to these questions will play a critical role in helping you create a realistic and well-thought-out plan that includes everyone’s wishes and values.

Finances: Conversations about finances can be just as challenging, especially for families not used to discussing money. At some point, parents may need help with day-to-day financial tasks such as paying bills and balancing the checkbook, or with larger issues like investing.

It’s important to clearly understand your parents’ goals for their wealth, from being able to afford the retirement lifestyle they envision to supporting charities they care about. A meeting with your parents and their financial adviser can be a forum to discuss their goals and wishes.

Having these discussions as early as possible helps establish the rationale for estate planning decisions. For example, if parents have spent more on one child’s education or provided funds to help start a business, they might decide to compensate the other siblings later on with larger shares of the estate.

This discussion can be difficult for parents to have with their child or children. But if they don’t have it while they’re alive, they risk having their children always wonder why they made certain decisions about their assets.

What to look for: Parents are not likely to volunteer that they need help, so it’s up to their children to watch for red flags.

Look to see if they are having uncharacteristic difficulty with things such as performing daily chores, keeping track of household finances, opening mail, managing investments, avoiding scams.

Discreetness and sensitivity are essential. One way to monitor your parents’ approach to household finances is to suggest going through a routine chore together during one of your regular visits. You might offer to sit with your mother as she pays bills. If your mother appears to be struggling during the process, offer to take it off her hands or lend her a hand.

Get the whole family involved: If you have siblings, open communication can foster cohesion and make handling the issues a lot easier, even if you live in different parts of the country.

Because the burden of care can easily land on the shoulders of the child who lives closest to the parents, it’s important the others pitch in. This might mean picking up the bill for housecleaning or in-home medical care, or making regular weekend visits to look after mom or dad and give the caretaker sibling a break.

Addressing medical and financial issues early can prevent problems later, as well as help maintain family harmony.

If you try to start those conversations while your parents’ health is fragile, that’s a real challenge for everybody. Knowing what to expect from each other can give everyone in the family better knowledge of expectations and make them feel more comfortable about choices being made.

• Timothy J. O’Connor is a certified financial planner and first vice-president/investment officer at Wells Fargo Advisors LLC in Woodstock. Reach him at timothy.oconnor@wellsfargoadvisors.com or 815-337-9470.

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