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Talking to Older Parents About Their Plans for the Future

When families are gathered for the holidays is a good time for adult children to broach the subject of their parents' housing and health care plans for the years ahead.

Question: My siblings and I are going to be traveling home for the holidays to see our parents, and we'd like to start talking with them about what they want to do if they need care in the future. But that's a very difficult discussion. How can we get started, and what should we do when we're in town to help?

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Answer: It's hard to start that conversation, especially if your parents are healthy, but that's the best time to do it, says Sandra Timmermann, a financial gerontologist who works with AXA Financial to teach their financial advisers about caregiving issues. Talking with your parents while they're healthy gives them more control over what happens to them if they eventually need care, either in their home or assisted living—rather than leaving you and your siblings to try to guess what they would have wanted and to make the decisions in an emergency. "Getting a plan in place gives them more control over their own future," says Timmermann.

A good way to begin the discussion is to talk about their house and the resources available in their community, or whether they'd eventually like to move to a new location, maybe near their grandchildren, Timmermann says. "Some people want to stay at home, but the house can be a burden," she says. Maybe they want to downsize or move to a new neighborhood or to an active retirement community now that their children are grown, says Timmermann. "Just because you move somewhere doesn't mean you want to age in that place," she says. "But where do you want to be as you start to need a little more help?"

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While you're home for the holidays, look around the house and think about what renovations your parents may need to make to be able to stay in their home, such as adding a bedroom on the first floor or making the bathroom more accessible. It's also a good time to find out more about the caregiving resources available in your parents' community, in case they eventually need help. "Most people don't know about the community resources until there's a crisis, and then they scramble," says Timmermann. Check for resources such as transportation services, a meals-on-wheels program or adult day-care centers.

Also start to look into what assisted-living facilities and home-care services are available in the area and their costs, even if your parents won't need that much help for years. The local Area Agency on Aging has information about home-care agencies, senior centers, nursing homes, financial benefits for seniors, help for caregivers and senior housing options, such as retirement communities and assisted living. You can find contact information for the state and county department on aging, as well as the State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP, which helps with Medicare questions), legal services for seniors, the state long-term-care ombudsman and other resources for seniors in the area through the U.S. Administration on Aging's Eldercare Locator.

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After you've started the conversation, it may be easier to talk about finances and whether your parents have considered long-term-care insurance, hybrid long-term-care life insurance policies or other plans to help cover the potential costs.

"Long-term-care planning enables you to think through things like community resources available, do you want to be in this house, can you retrofit the house, and can you afford somebody to come in," says Timmermann. "It enables you to stay in the home longer."

While you and your siblings are together, it can also help to talk with each other about how each of you can assist your parents. One person may help with financial issues and be the parents' executor when doing estate planning. Another may have an easier time talking with your parents about where they want to live and what they want to do in the future, says Timmermann. Or a sibling who lives nearby may be able to take parents to doctors' appointments and provide some care if they start to need it.

For more information about helping your parents, see How to Provide Financial Help for Aging Parents.

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