In Part 1 of this blog on Caring for Aging Parents, I discussed three interpersonal dynamics that I frequently observe between my clients and their families. I then outlined different approaches or considerations that might help alleviate friction or frustration that often times results from caring for aging parents. In my practice, sometimes the aging parent is my client and other times my clients come to me for advice regarding their aging parent.
These conversations are common, I believe, for two reasons:
- (1) we emphasize to our clients the importance of estate planning, and
- (2) we frequently are asked by existing clients to work with members of their families.
For part two of this blog, I would like to focus on three topics that may be considered more “actionable” in nature, which I believe will aid people who are concerned with their aging parents – especially those parents who begin to show signs of diminished mental or physical capacity.
1. Communication Style and Methods Matter Greatly
When caring for aging parents, especially those with diminished capacity, all parties involved should first decide on the manner in which they will communicate. Communication matters because people want not only to be heard, but also to be understood. Additionally, different age groups communicate very differently. An older generation may want to have only conversations in-person (or perhaps predominately in-person with follow-ups over the phone). Younger generation(s), by contrast, may want to save time by utilizing email or text messages.
These different communication styles/preferences could potentially produce significant stress and conflict, especially when dealing with or caring for aging parents. I feel it’s best, prior to making any significant decisions, for families to decide how they are going to communicate with one another. This decision should be made collectively and ideally take place in-person.
Example: Establishing a Clear Method of Communication
Several years ago, I heard an interview with Duke University head basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski discussing his experience when he first took over as head coach for the men’s Olympic basketball team in 2006. People tend to forget that USA men’s basketball was on the decline. The team had just placed 3rd in the 2004 Olympic Summer Games in Greece – their worst showing since allowing professional players to participate in 1992.
The United States still had the best collection of talent in the world, they just weren’t playing as a team. The root of the problem, according to Krzyzewski, was their communication. The players seldom looked at each other when they were speaking. This struck Krzyzewski as problematic because how would a player know whether he is being addressed if no one is actually looking at him.
So, the very first thing Coach K addressed with his players was the manner in which they were going to communicate with one another. The team and coaching staff decided collectively that they would look each other in the face when they were speaking. This was the only way for everyone on the team to tell if they were listening to and understanding one another. Krzyzewski credits this simple communication policy as having the most significant impact on his team’s performance. The result was that the men’s team dominated the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China, winning gold in decisive fashion.
Benefits of Clear Communication
Establishing a clear method of communication will produce considerable benefits for everyone involved. First, everyone will likely feel that they are making progress right off the bat regarding a fundamental issue. A family – or any organization – can’t be successful at long-term planning without progress and victories along the way. They are the building blocks of success.
Second, all parties involved will be coming to a consensus, which will greatly reduce misunderstandings. In fact, it will likely encourage collaborative problem solving. Finally, clear communication is the foundation upon which to resolve disagreements. When conflicts inevitably arise, the group’s established communication method will be the tool to resolve them.
The Importance of Asking Questions
Finally, I would like to stress the importance of questions. In Part 1, I stressed the importance of listening—asking questions is the other side of that coin. Ask a lot of questions of aging parents (without interrogating them) and hold off on your own agenda. Be patient and start small. Try to gradually extract from them their primary concern(s).
If you are wanting to move your parents into an assisted living situation or simply want to formulate a plan about their future, it’s important to first find out how they feel about things. If given the opportunity to express thoughts and concerns absent a feeling of pressure or angst, people will generally tell you everything you wish to know.
Asking questions should not feel like an interrogation but rather a friendly interview. The end goal is the formation of an action plan, designed by the aging parent. People are much more likely to follow through on a plan if they feel they designed it, or at least, took the lead.
2. Take Inventory of Important Documents
I do not believe it’s possible to set down a strategic plan for the future without first evaluating the present situation. For instance, when I conduct my initial meetings with prospective clients, a substantial portion of our time is devoted to assembling a clear picture of their current financial situation. Much like a doctor reviewing a patient’s vital signs before prescribing a treatment, I want to examine where people stand at the present moment so that I can administer the proper advice.
This process is aided by documents and information the prospective clients bring to their first appointment – which we term the “Discovery” appointment. Much in the same way, I believe it’s important for families to create an inventory of documents from the aging parents so that they are fully informed when making decisions. Here is a basic checklist of documents and the reasons I recommend for collecting them.
5 Documents to Collect
Estate documents – The basic documents should include: Will or Trust, Medical and Financial Powers of Attorney, and Living Will. More sophisticated plans may exist, such as a family LLC or charitable giving plans. Be sure to also note what attorney or law firm created the documents and when they were created as some forms could be out of date or need altering. The original attorney who drew up the documents is often less expensive than engaging a new one. The reason for collecting these documents is two-fold: 1) family members often have to take over decision-making for their parents (financially and medically). 2) these documents clarify the wishes of the aging parents. This is especially important in situations where they are no longer able to express them.
- Titles to property – Homes, cars, land, etc. These documents are important to collect because assets might need to be retitled, transferred or sold.
- Investment and bank statements – Be sure to get the actual statements as they will have important information on them (name of advisor/institution, account numbers, registration, activity history and sometimes even beneficiary information). The reason for collecting these documents is to assess the financial capabilities of the aging parent(s).
- Life, Health & Long-Term Care Insurance statements and policies – It’s important to understand what type of coverage exists as well as what might be lacking.
- Credit cards and various recurring bills – These statements will help with budgeting and also keep parents current on their obligations. One unfortunate side effect of older individuals with diminished mental capacity is poor money management. Family members should take some time to review recent activity on these documents – 3 months is a good start.
There are certainly more things that I could add to this list, but these five items are a great place to start. You will also want to make a list of what is missing. As you collect and review these documents, other issues and considerations are likely to arise – so be prepared! Things will naturally surface that will be unique to each situation.
Also important and often overlooked are digital assets. You can contact us to request a comprehensive checklist, but the main inclusions are rewards points for credit cards and other loyalty programs, emails, and social media pages. Many seniors are targets of online scams. Gaining access to email and social media accounts is a good idea. So too is being able to unlock smart phones, tablets and computers. These devices and accounts are quickly becoming an extension of ourselves. We store key information in them that we no longer commit to memory, such as phone numbers, addresses, and passwords.
3. DIVISION OF LABOR
Once a plan has been established, then an assignment of duties should take place. Certain family members are good at certain jobs. As I stated earlier, communication is key. The goal is not to have countless meetings, but it is important to have a cooperative plan of what needs to be done and by whom.
Also, there are licensed professionals (social workers, geriatricians and gerontologists) who specialize in helping our aging population. It may be useful to engage their services. A straightforward division of roles and responsibilities will aid in the design and execution of a care plan.
This is obviously a lot of information. Caring for aging parents is not an easy job. It is doubly difficult for people who are in a reactive situation after a major health event has transpired, such as a stroke or major disease. Proactive measures are always the best. I have found that working with one’s parents’ estate planning attorney is the best way to be proactive. Individuals who have an estate plan usually want to make sure they are not a burden to their family. Also, they usually want their loved ones to have copies of their estate plan.
Additionally, it helps to have a relationship with their financial planner. The financial planner should have a fairly broad understanding of his or her client’s total wealth and where it is located. In my own practice we securely store these documents digitally for our clients so they have easy access to them at any time. Financial advisors may also have relationships with other professionals that may come in handy at a later date – CPAs, real estate agents, bankers, institutional trustees, etc. More information on estate planning – including our free guide, Estate Planning Simplified – are available on our website as a helpful starting point.