We have a lot of difficult conversations with our parents. Perhaps this is the hardest, and most important.
“Hi mom, can you and dad give me a call when you get this message?” I swallowed hard. Shit. I did not want to have this talk. There are just some interactions you would rather not have with your parents.
Like the time you walked in on them “wrestling” when you were seven. Or when you were 12 and mom held up the Georgia O’Keefe painting while dad droned on about bee pollen.
As our parents age, it’s not uncommon to see the traditional roles reverse — and it’s rarely an easy transition. The younger generation takes more responsibility for our parent’s well-being, but then our parents feel talked down to. And then we feel frustrated.
The conversations don’t have to go down that way. Mine didn’t.
“Mom, you know I love you right?”
Personally, I’d recommend you start soft but remain firm. I decided to speak the truth in our conversations on aging, no matter how they went.
“Mom, you know I love you, right? That’s why I’ve decided to move you two into a nursing home when you can’t make any more decisions. We just need to figure out what we’re going to do between now and then. OK?”
I feared they would disown me and rely on my younger brother for counsel in their remaining years. But my fears were in vain. I made my feelings known. I told them how much I love them. I started with humor. I put us on the same side of the table in the negotiation. And I made it a collaborative process.
Luckily for me, they agreed. “OK, when we’re too old to fight, you can have your way, Shayne. Between now and then, let’s work out a plan together.”
“Dad, how often do you think about your retirement savings?”
He told me he hadn’t put a lot of thought into retirement savings. I responded that it wasn’t an acceptable answer. I wanted to know how much they had saved, what they planned to do in retirement and their cash burn rates. When I asked how much they had saved for retirement, I heard vague figures. I asked how much they would need each year to maintain their current standard of living. They replied, “We haven’t thought about it.”
Since the Lydians invented money, conversations about coin have been awkward. But these are the sorts of things that need to get workshopped as a team. One parent has a defined benefit plan. The other has a defined contribution plan. Together, we needed the Fitz-Coy family plan.
In the end, they didn’t know where to start, so I offered to help. We agreed to gather all the information and have a conversation with all the facts. They gathered their statements, plan notifications and tax documents. I brought my spectacles and a half-constructed retirement Excel model. We’re still remixing and working our way through it, like writers and producers on a Drake track. But we’ll find something that works for our clique.
“Where do you want your final resting place to be?”
“Do whatever is least costly,” they said. They may have blue passports, but their first generation immigrant ways are always present.
But the funeral home industry is built on guilt, and the desire to do as much as we can. I told my mother that unless she specified her needs, I’m going to feel the need to send her out in the nicest thing I can afford. I’ll raid my son’s college fund to pay for a mausoleum. She may not want that, but in my grief I may want to give it to her. But if she can specify what her wishes are, I’ll feel like a good son by following what she wants, rather than spending a fortune to feel like a good son.
I do not recommend a family trip down to the cemetery to have your folks lay down on the plot. But I do know some seniors who have done so. Advanced family funeral planning makes it easier on the family to fulfill final wishes.
“Mom, have you executed a power of attorney? How should we handle ‘do not resuscitate’ situations?”
They said they have thought about it and agreed that they don’t care one way or another.
My initial thought: “It’s pretty shitty for you to leave that decision alone to me.” What I actually said: “I respect that you don’t care, but I need you to put preferences on paper. You won’t be around to care, but my brothers and I will fret, worry and fight about it. If you want to ensure our close relationships hold, then you need to get something on paper before we need it.”
“Do you want to be an organ donor?”
“Yes. If other people want my old body, they can have it.”
Thanks mom. Now let’s put it on paper.
It’s never easy, but you can make it a little less hard for everyone.
My recommendation is to be prepared to have an open, honest talk, and come with a strategy. Your parents aren’t dead yet, so don’t act like they are. If you’re funny, use humor. If you’re sweet, be sweet.
We covered much ground in our first few hard conversations on aging. Where do you keep your important documents? What are your main expenses? Who are your emergency responders in case something happens?
But we still have so much to discuss. When is the right time to give up the car and stop driving? How much longer can you live by yourself? What part of Florida suits you best? How will you know when you have to move? Which son gets your what?
Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Instead of thinking of it as one conversation, realize that it will be a series of conversations. You need to remind your parents that you are here to support them.
This isn’t a conversation about the loss of independence. It’s a conversation to set up the next phase in life. If you wait too long, it becomes a big, overwhelming task. But with a plan and a dash of humor, it doesn’t have to be.