Your parents taught you to talk by talking to you. Now that you are the one caring for your aging parents, you need to talk to them to maintain open lines of communication.

There may be topics you and your parents would rather avoid, such as giving up driving, a safer and more convenient place to live, or money and health care issues. But it is important to have those difficult conversations when appropriate.

Earlier this year, Fidelity Investments released the results of its third Family & Finance survey, which said these conversations are not just difficult – they’re not happening.

Fidelity asked several sets of parents and adult children about plans for estate execution, financial management and caregiving as the parents age, and what role their children would play. The parents’ and children’s views varied widely. For example, although 92 percent of parents expect one of their children to be the executor of their estate, when asked, more than one in four (27 percent) of the adult children identified as filling the role had no idea this would be expected of them.

The underlying problem is that there is not adequate communication. That is partly because many families have never gotten around to talking about these and other important topics. It is also because parents and children often do not agree when it is appropriate to talk about them.

Well, the time is now! In the Fidelity study, one-third of parents and their children said frank conversations should occur after retirement and when health and finances have become an issue. But that may be too late, Fidelity says.

Jeannie Locy, president of Right at Home, an in-home companion and personal care provider in Louisville, Ky., and South Central Indiana, agrees. “Caring for parents or other seniors can be exhausting and emotions can flare, so one of the most valuable things any family can do for an aging loved one is to start talking about ‘someday’ care issues before they need to be implemented,” she says in an article about family discussions on caring for aging relatives.

Understanding the Elder’s View of Needed Conversations

Perhaps you’ve attempted to discuss some of these issues with your parent or parents, and it didn’t go well. You should not be discouraged, and you should not feel alone.

The fact that you were greeted with anything from resistance to delay to downright stubbornness should tell you that your family dynamic is not unusual. But maybe you can change that.

Penn State study cited by Science Daily says adult children link perceptions of parent stubbornness with how they see their relationships with their parents. But parents link their perceptions to who they are as people. If parents see themselves as more neurotic or less agreeable, they report more stubbornness. Because adult children and aging parents may view what these behaviors represent differently, this may adversely affect how they relate to one another or support one another.

David Solie, an author who specializes in geriatric issues, says older adults may be struggling with issues of control and their personal legacy when they seem to avoid the issue in difficult conversations.

An article about Solie’s and others’ geriatric research and writing suggests some scenarios in which more is going on in how a senior deals with unsettling topics.

As you discuss moving to a different home with your father and he insists on telling stories of how he and your mother found the house, he is “engaged in the life review process as part of understanding his legacy. As he contemplates leaving this house for good, he’s looking back on all this house has meant to him.”

Your mother who complains regularly about not being able to see well but refuses all efforts for a vision checkup, is trying to avoid yet another restriction on her lifestyle and loss of independence. Perhaps she’s already given up certain activities because of her health and physical limitations, and seen friends become less active or pass away.

Solie, Fidelity Investments, Right at Home, and Angie’s List, offer some tips for productive conversations between adult children and their aging parents, which we’ve adapted here and added to from our own experience working with families with elderly members:

  • Don’t wait. These conversations should begin taking place before retirement, and certainly well before any challenges arise, Fidelity says. “It’s actually a good idea for conversations about finances [and other issues] to be taking place among families no matter what your age, whether you are in your 20s and looking to build a strong financial foundation or in your 60s and transitioning into retirement,” said John Sweeney, executive vice president of Retirement and Investing Strategies at Fidelity.
  • Make time for conversation. Don’t expect things to go well if your only conversations with Mom or Dad occur in big heavy sit-downs about tough issues. Spend time with your parents and talk to them about how they are doing and how they see their days ahead. This means more than stopping by for 10 or 15 minutes or touching base by phone between meetings at work. Keep conversations relaxed. If your elderly parent(s) are capable of participating in planning, he and/or she should be involved in open discussions.
  • Reassure your parents. Financial, health care and end-of-life issues are undeniably touchy subjects. Show your parents you want to understand their situation and respect their wishes if you are called upon to help. Set a good example. Have your own finances and estate planning in order, and explain it to them, in case something happens to you, and they need to know.
  • Listen to learn. If your parent starts to wander in conversation, let them go on a bit. You may find that a point that sounds irrelevant indicates a concern you did not recognize. If you are having regular conversations, and you see that they return to certain stories, topics or times of their life, there may be more there worth exploring.
  • Ask questions to learn. Do not be shy or afraid to ask about things such as wills, powers of attorneys, health care proxies, living wills and final wishes. Ask if documents exist and, if they do, where they are. If you do not know who your parents’ attorneys are, find out and touch base with them. As parents tell stories or reminisce, ask about the people and stories they mention to bring more out of them. This will help facilitate their life review process, and with pleasant memories, relax them and put them in a good frame of mind.
  • Ask questions to teach. If your parent insists he or she can do things that you are pretty sure the parent shouldn’t be doing, pose simple scenarios and ask what they would do. If you ran out of gas what would you do? How far could you walk? If you were home alone and needed help, who would you call? What’s their number?
  • Be ready to help. You absolutely have to be ready to walk the walk. Make sure you understand the issues (as we said above, have your own house in order), know what needs to be done, and have time to do things your parents might ask you to do or that you can hire help. If considering roles like power of attorney or being executor of the estate, consider your siblings’ personalities, as well as your proximity, relationship with your parents and other issues that might affect long-term decision making.
  • Keep talking. Sometimes bigger issues require more formal conversations, such as a family meeting. Less formal conversations might produce a to-do list for a bigger planning session. Set a time where all of you can get together if a formal discussion is needed. Write down things you discuss, and review and share copies with Mom and Dad. Unengaged parents may not look at their copies, but they will recognize that you are including them and not dictating to them.