The Conversation Every Family Needs To Have

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BERLIN – There comes a time when aging parents and their children need to deal head-on with the options and challenges that come with the later stages of life. This includes the often sensitive and polarizing subjects of personal finances, medical care and long-term living arrangements.

David Solie, medical director for Marsh Private Client Life Insurance Services and author of “How to Say It to Seniors: Closing the Communication Gap With Our Elders,” thinks the two generations will communicate more effectively if children understand the physical and psychological changes their parents are going through.

“By putting yourself in their shoes,” he says, “you can frame conversations about finances and other important issues without generating frustration and hard feelings.”

Such intergenerational discussions should take place well before health care and money become pressing issues.

Research shows that two priorities govern life’s later stages. The first is the desire to maintain personal control. For aging parents, that means being able to preserve choices about where they live, medical care and finances. In addition, they want to contribute and help others, especially family members, even as their ability to do so may be diminishing. The second is the need to solidify a legacy that will give meaning to and provide a perspective on life.

Both priorities are crucial to keep in mind when children and parents talk about what’s ahead. And though this may be a difficult conversation to start, sometimes things happen that may provide an opening. When parents suffer falls in the home, or even minor mishaps, they may be more receptive to discussions about the best options for helping them remain independent. This offers children an opportunity to acknowledge the importance of control in their aging parents’ lives.

How the conversation is framed, however, can make all the difference. Solie suggests that children take care to show respect and empathy; instead of telling Mom and Dad, “You can’t live alone anymore,” they might try, “I know how much staying in this house means to you. I want to help you understand what your choices are so that you can make the best decision for yourself.”

Discussions about health and assisted living can also offer opportunities to take a closer look at the parent’s financial preparations. By discussing care options early, both parent and child can discover how the costs of independent and assisted living may vary, and what the parent can really afford. It’s also good to assess the parent’s insurance coverage.

As touchy as the subject of estate planning may be, sharing financial knowledge can be one of the great joys and responsibilities of parenthood — an opportunity to pass down knowledge from one generation to the next.

All these topics — from family finances and living arrangements to legacy planning and a search for meaning — should be part of an ongoing, open, mutually satisfying conversation between the generations. Be that as it may, simply getting the discussion started can go a long way toward building trust and comfort between parents and children. Your Merrill Lynch financial advisor can help all of you begin talking.

(A Merrill Lynch Senior Financial Advisor. She can be reached at 410-213-8520.)

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