How You Can Help Facilitate Family Communication

By Karen Henderson

The average 21st century North American is projected to spend more years taking care of aging family members than raising children.

Ken Dychtwald, Psychologist/Gerontologist, author of Age Power

It’s no secret that your clients are aging, and with their aging comes the aging of their parents. A few families anticipate this eventuality but the majority hope that the issue will look after itself because they cannot face this painful fact of life – losing those who gave them life.

However, clients ignore the issue at their peril; if parents need financial support in their later years it’s wise to accept the reality now and if possible integrate this need into their own financial planning.

In addition, there may be other reasons adult children need to intercede:

  • Medical conditions that need attention and care
  • The inability to perform the Activities of Daily Living or ADLs – bathing, eating, toileting, dressing, continence, mobility
  • A change in behavior or cognitive ability
  • Medication mismanagement
  • The inability to drive safely

Even though there may be a clear need for assistance, many parents refuse to either discuss the need or accept the help. Why? The main reason is the fear of losing whatever independence remains, and the need to retain their dignity and control over a situation that may be spiraling out of control. Aging parents can feel increasingly vulnerable and try to protect themselves by shutting others out.

As an advisor you may be struggling with how to help your clients communicate with aging parents, so here are some suggestions to enable your clients to be proactive.

Before beginning, however, encourage clients to remember the three rules:

  • Don’t treat parents like children
  • Start slowly
  • Make parents part of the decision process
  1. Expect and accept that parents will grow old. Aging is not a disease; it is part of the life cycle
  2. Put yourself in their shoes by trying to understand the losses that often accompany aging – loss of family, friends, physical or cognitive abilities
  3. Remember the 40/70 rule; when adult children are about the age of 40 and parents the age of 70, it’s time to start the conversation, a conversation that could continue for months, even years before it is concluded and all decisions made
  4. Encourage clients to have a family meeting BEFORE A CRISIS OCCURS
    and ask parents questions such as:

    • How do you see yourself aging?
    • What would you like to achieve with your estate?
    • Where are the legal and other documents?
    • Do you want to stay at home if possible? What can I do to help you maintain your independence?
    • How much money is available for your care?
  5. Then encourage clients to respond positively:
    • Offer to set up automatic bill payments if parents have trouble
      remembering to pay bills
    • Research some options – home care, home modification, day programs – so adult children can offer concrete care suggestions
    • Become familiar with new devices or technologies that may help a senior maintain independence
  6. If parents are reluctant to communicate, or children do not know where to start, begin with some ‘what ifs’:
    • Dad, what if you have another heart attack?
    • What if mum falls again and breaks a hip?
    • What if something happens to me and I cannot be there for you?
    • What is there is not enough money for your care?

Talking about money is fraught with difficulty at the best of times. Aging children need to remember how hard parents have worked for their money and that for many money means security, independence and a way to help family. Money is something – maybe the last thing – that parents can control, and they may not relinquish this control easily.
It is also wise to remember that having money does not make clients immune to:

  • Having a dysfunctional family
  • The consequences of poor family communication
  • The consequences of poor planning…”not me”
  • To the emotional chaos of caring or being cared for

In the end, it comes down to this: The vast majority of adult children want to help their parents age with grace and dignity, and if there is one question that may enable this it is:

Mum, dad do I know everything I need to know, so that if something happens, I can do what you want me to do?

Enabling your clients to help aging parents can give you many rewards, including the chance to really connect with your clients, the opportunity to build client loyalty and new referrals, and the ability to care for your own family when the time comes.

As the saying goes: Just do it!