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Senior silence: Talking about money with your aging parents might be hard, but it's worth it

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 1 2013 7:30 a.m. MDT

Many seniors have not communicated their wishes about future health care or financial decisions to their children — potentially leaving their loved ones with difficulties and heartache.

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A year and a half ago, Amy Florian's 85-year-old father's kidneys were failing.

"He always said, because he watched his brother go through dialysis, that he did not want to go live on dialysis," Florian says. "When it actually came down to it, he was lucid enough to make the decision himself and he decided to try dialysis at least for short term, and see what happens."

One day in July, Florian's father laid back with his eyes closed and said, "Do I have to keep doing this? Do I have to keep fighting?"

Florian says she told him, "No. You don't have to."

He ended dialysis and died 10 days later on Aug. 5.

Florian, who lives in Hoffman Estates, Ill., and is an author and expert counselor in the grieving process, says her father is an example of someone who was able to make his own decisions about his health and finances up to the end of his life. But if he hadn't been able to make those decisions, he still would have had his wishes followed.

"Even if he was no longer able to make that decision about dialysis for himself, we would have been able to do it for him because we know what he wanted," she says.

Many Americans, however, are not having similar conversations with their families. Parents are not discussing their wishes with their adult children. A survey by the National Endowment for Financial Education, a non-profit institute based in Denver that promotes financial education, found that while 86 percent of those surveyed say they would trust a family member to make financial decisions for them if they couldn't, 69 percent of people said there are "major barriers" in the family to discussing the possibility. With Baby Boomers heading into their senior years, the problem is growing and may leave families struggling to follow the wishes of their parents regarding finances and health.

Barriers and family dynamics

Paul Golden, spokesman for the National Endowment for Financial Education, says conversations about aging and current or possible future cognitive or physical decline can be very difficult to have. "There can be pride, denial and defensiveness," he says. "Seniors may be tested for driving, but there are no tests to measure financial acuity. That falls on families to be responsible."

Edward R. Collins, a wealth advisor and financial planner at Artisan Wealth Management in Lebanon, N.J., says adult children can go too far. "They take too much action," he says. "They try to seize the checkbook and order their mom and dad. I don't like people telling me what to do, and parents don't either."

Instead, Collins says, the attitude has to be one of helping and leaving the parents in control of their own lives.

But people should be aware of warning signs that something may be wrong — such as bills being scattered throughout the house or utilities being shut off for lack of payment.

Burdens and control

"There are a lot of psychological issues related to money matters," Collins says. "One is being independent. The other is a desire to not be a burden on your children. A parent doesn't want to be a burden. They feel guilty about that, so they may keep a lot of things secret, keep it internal. That way they don't put it on their children."

Gerald W. Kaufman and his wife, L. Marlene Kaufman, have more than 50 years of experience in family therapy between them and have seen the problems of talking about cognitive decline in their practices in Akron, Pa. Instead of losing control to overbearing children, Marlene Kaufman says, a discussion with adult children establishes control.

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