The Parent Care Conversation – The conversations you should have with your parents…while you still can!

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Article by Jeffrey Cavignac, CPCU, ARM, RPLU, CRIS, MLIS,
Cavignac & Associates – All Rights Reserved

Cavignac & Associates manages risk and negotiates insurance for the business community, and normally our newsletters are focused on the specific risk management concerns of our business clients.  Occasionally, however, an issue comes up that transcends business.  Caring for aging parents is one of those issues.  It is something nearly everyone will have to deal with in their lifetime, and it is the subject of this newsletter.

The comments in this newsletter are predominantly pulled from the concepts I learned in a book written by Dan Taylor, The Parent Care Conversation.  Dan faced the same issues many of us will have to deal with, and his book is a “how to” on the subject.  I should point out that this newsletter is more of a wake-up call than a specific step by step on the issues.  If this issue is a concern, I would urge you to buy Dan’s book.

The Issue:

Long term care for aging parents is a sensitive, often difficult, but ultimately inevitable issue for all of us. The choice is to either be proactive, working with your parents to develop strategies while they can still be involved in the decision, or to be reactive and deal with it only when you have to. It will come as no surprise that better decisions are usually generated in the first scenario.

Good reasons to avoid the subject:

There are a lot of good reasons–excuses–not to deal with the issue of aging parents:

  • My parents have money, property and papers scattered everywhere…I don’t even know where to start.
  • My parents say they’ve already worked things out with their attorney.
  • My parents are very private; they didn’t talk about their finances when I was young, and there is no way they will open up now.
  • I have my own life to deal with; I don’t have time for this…and I don’t know what I’m doing.
  • I’m lousy with money. Besides I’m pretty sure my sister will handle this.

These are just a few of the typical excuses for not proactively working with parents to create workable elder care strategies. Excuses are justifications for not taking control of a situation, for opting to do nothing instead of something in order to avoid assuming responsibility and accountability. Unfortunately, no matter how many excuses you have, this issue will not go away. You or a sibling will have to face it, so you might as well face  it now.

Getting Started:

Recognize that this is a challenging, complex and emotional set of issues. In order to fully understand where your parents are coming from, you need to listen to them. One of Steven Covey’s 7 Habits is “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.”  Only by understanding your parent’s concerns, fears, and desires can you craft the best decisions. Remember, the objective is to partner with your parents and to help them strategize about their own future care. 

Step 1The Big Picture:

Conversation–it begins with your parents’ vision of what they want their future to be. This conversation is all about getting your parents to reveal how they want to spend the rest of their life. It is important for your parents to understand that you cannot participate in or be held responsible for their care unless you are a part of the conversation about that care. This point is critical.  Your parents may think that they don’t want to burden you with this issue and they may not be comfortable discussing it; however, they are placing a much bigger burden on you by not discussing it, and they are also doing a disservice to themselves.  It is also important for you to remember that this conversation is about what your parents want, not what you want for your parents.

Step 2:  Money:

Once you know how your parents want to spend the rest of their lives, you need to determine if they can afford it. You need to obtain an overall grasp of your parents’ current financial situation and their future financial needs. Unless you know what assets your parents have and where those assets are, you won’t be able to arrange things to maximize their use and to protect those assets as much as possible while not running afoul of the myriad of federal and state Medicare and Medicaid rules and regulations. Taylor provides a number of strategies and tools that can be used to help your parents manage their finances.  The key is to make sure you know exactly where your parents are financially and who their advisors are.  Equally as important is not to take your parents’ word for it that they are financially sound, not to assume someone else in the family will handle this and not to count on the government to fund your parents’ care.

Step 3:  Property:

Your parents may have accumulated a significant amount of property in their lifetime, and the purpose of this conversation is to determine how they would like that property to be managed and/or distributed both in the years they have left and after they are gone. This discussion will also help your parents decide on what they want to keep and what they don’t need, helping them get lean and mean with their possessions. Your parents basically have 3 choices:

  • Make a will or create a trust,
  • Start giving away stuff now, or
  • Do nothing.

It is important to make these decisions now; don’t put it off. It is also important that all siblings be involved in any dissolution of property and that everything be correctly documented. Just as important, don’t tell your parents what they can and cannot keep. After all it is their stuff!

Step 4:  The House

The objective is to get a fix on how your parents feel about their ability to keep living where they are now.  Under what circumstances (if any) would they consider living elsewhere? This may be one of the toughest decisions they have ever had to make. Your role is to help them transform these challenges into a set of realistic possibilities for achieving a positive experience.

Step 5:  Professional Care

What type of care will your parents need? Where can they get it? Care facilities vary widely. Taylor provides strategies on how to select the right facility, and selecting the right one is critical. Facilities will fall somewhere on the following continuum:

Retirement Community-Assisted Living-Special CareNursing Care
Acute Nursing CareHospiceInternment

In addition to the facility itself, you need to evaluate the staff as well as the Emergency Services Policy. Once your parents are in a facility you need to visit regularly and keep an eye out for signs of negligence or neglect. Typically, when your parents reach the point where professional care is required, what they need the most is the three C’s: connection, community and conversation.

Step 6:  Your Parents’ Legacy:

Legacy is about remembering the past in order to make sense of it. How do your parents want to be remembered by family, friends and others? This conversation lays the ground work for creating and preserving their legacy through declaration of assets, gifts and other bequests. An effective legacy conversation will determine how your parents view themselves and their lives, how your parents want you to remember them, what your parents want others to remember them for, and how and  by whom your parents also want to be remembered.

Step 7: Executing Essential Legal Documents and Strategies

The best strategies in the world are worthless if they are not properly documented and executed. Critical legal documents include a will, a declaration of guardian, powers of attorney, and a trust and health care power of attorney. Numerous other documents may also be necessary. Needless to say, having the right advisors is critical as well. Go through a process and make these selections thoughtfully. It is important to make certain that everyone who should be involved in the documenting phase is involved. Equally important is to go through a checklist to make certain you have all the documents you need and to make certain the documents are stored where people can find them.

Final Thoughts:

People my age will remember the Fram Oil Filter ads from the 1960s and 70s.  The mechanic stands in front of a car that is obviously broken down and says “You can pay me now (buy the inexpensive Fram Oil Filter) or pay me later (funding the exorbitant cost to repair your vehicle because you didn’t buy the filter).”  This issue is similar.  You can deal with the issue now when you have the time to involve your parents and make the right decisions…or you can deal with it when it happens when you are under the gun and in total scramble mode.

There are any number of ways to deal with these issues, and I’m not saying the strategies outlined in Taylor’s book are the gospel; however they have worked for me, and I strongly recommend that if this is an issue you are now facing, or expect to face, you buy his book.  Proactively managing your parents’ golden years is a process which is never done. Things change, and your parent care strategies will change and evolve as well. Decisions need to be reviewed periodically with all involved, at least annually. Updating a parent care plan after its original design should be viewed much like seeing your doctor on a regular basis. It just makes sense!