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  • Jenn Steliga

Are the older members of your family financially protected?

Today is Elder Abuse Awareness Day. It’s a good reminder to engage in conversations about financial well-being with those loved ones in your life. Financial exploitation of our nation’s elderly is a real thing. Be aware of it, and take measures to prevent it in your family.

It got me thinking that many of us, regardless of which side of the table we're sitting on (parent or child), may not be well equipped yet to have this conversation with our loved ones. This is a common theme in my coaching and writing - being willing to engage in conversations that aren't always easy.

So here are a few things to consider as you prepare to talk about financial well-being - it's a long post, but I believe it's worth the read.

One of the best ways to prevent financial exploitation in the elderly is to start having conversations about financial well-being in our families early and often.

As an older adult, perhaps you’ve never had these sorts of conversations with your children. As an adult child, engaging in the topic of financial well-being and estate planning with parents who have never approached you about it might feel intimidating. There are so many variables that play into these conversations (family dynamics, etc) that there’s no one-size-fits all approach to doing them well.

The most important step is to just start.

Don’t spend too much time thinking about how to do it right, or perfectly. Get your mind and your heart right, and, knowing that your intentions are good, take that step and just start talking.

Talk early, talk often.

The best plan, of course, is to have these conversations early and often.

As soon as you start a family, or start to accumulate assets, or heck as soon as you’re an adult, don’t be afraid of planning. Planning in the realm of financial well-being is actually a gift you are leaving to those left behind. Do the hard work for those who come behind you so that they don’t have to stress and worry in an already emotionally stressful time (you lose your ability to make choices for yourself or you pass away).

Build your team of trusted advisors early on: a financial coach, financial planner and investment advisor, an estate planning attorney, insurance agent, etc. Cultivating these relationships sooner rather than later will help to build deep trust; and if for some reason you start to NOT trust this person, you have the time to shift gears and look for someone else better suited to your needs.

None of us live forever, and accepting that will do wonders for your own mental health and overall well-being. I know - it’s not easy. If you’re at all like me, you’re probably not there yet. I may not be in full acceptance of the aging process, but I AM accepting of having a plan. I have an estate plan to include adequate insurance, and as soon as my kids are old enough we’ll be having lots of open and honest conversations about ensuring there is plenty of champagne flowing at my celebration of life (not funeral) and where to spread my ashes.

Avoiding our ultimate destination can be to the detriment of all we’ve worked hard for in this world, and put undue hardship on those we love. So embrace your mortality, enjoy the heck out of life, and don’t be afraid to make some plans to care for those you love and ensure your legacy.

You might be wondering at this point, what if Option 1, the ideal plan, doesn’t happen?

Let’s be honest – it rarely unfolds this way, though I’ll keep advocating for it with every breath I have to everyone who will listen!

But, if this hasn’t been your reality so far, that’s ok too. Read on...

If you are on older adult considering talking to your adult children about your financial well-being...

... to include estate planning, and especially talking through what it looks like if you lose the ability to make decisions for yourself, know this: your kids are probably wanting to have this conversation with you and are scared to do so.

They don’t want you to feel like they’re treating you like a child or trying to take over. They are probably trying to respect your privacy and your independence. Bringing up this topic will probably give them great relief. You need a game plan, and to execute that plan you need a team. So gather your family up and have the honest conversation about your well-being.

  • Where are important documents located?

  • Do you even have these documents (will, trust, insurance, etc)? If not - get them!

  • Do you have the proper insurance coverage (health, life, disability, identify theft, long-term care)?

  • Who do you want to make important health and financial decisions for you when you can’t?

  • Are your beneficiaries up-to-date on all retirement accounts and any life insurance policies?

  • Who should take care of your pets?

If you’re in a position where you don’t think your kids are the best choice for acting as an agent or even having this conversation with then ask yourself, who is a trusted person in your life? Reach out to someone you trust and talk to them. Are you connected with a loving church community? You could start there. Or look at local community resources. There are also professional fiduciary services if you’d rather go that route (google fiduciary services by state to find these trained individuals in your area).

If you are an adult child of an aging parent ...

and you’ve never engaged in a financial well-being conversation, this can be a tough one. You know your parents best, and because of that you might be avoiding this talk because you know they won’t respond well. Or, you may have no idea how they’ll respond because neither of you have even tried to talk about it.

Keep this in mind: first and foremost, this conversation is all about respect.

You are choosing to engage with your parent(s) because you respect them. You care about their well-being. You want to help. If you keep that spirit in your heart, you’ll do great.

Facing mortality is not easy.

Why is this chat important? It's important to you, but ultimately this conversation is about your parents, and their legacy. Highlight why it’s important to mom and dad to preserve their hard-earned assets and why it’s important to think about who will make choices for them should they no longer be able to. Remember – no one wants to talk about death. And the topics of insurance, estate planning and creating a power of attorney so that other people can make life-or-death or financial decisions for you (ugh – doesn't sound like a fun prospect) force people to face their mortality in a way they might not be ready to. So, they’ll avoid it – at all costs.  Some don’t, but in general it’s just a thing we humans struggle with.

Language matters. So does the why ...

Please don’t start the conversation off with “hey mom and dad, I’ve come up with a great plan for you … all you need to do is follow it!”. That's a surefire way to shut things down before they even start. Instead, get their permission. “Mom, there’s something that’s been weighing on my heart for awhile and I want to talk to you about it – I'm just not sure I’m prepared to help you the best way I could when it comes to your financial well-being. Can you help me learn more about ways I can support you?”

You may not talk like that. I talk like that because I’m a trained counselor. I probably annoy my mom (and others) talking like this, but I just can’t help myself. So I get it if you don’t sound like that. That’s ok. The point is to make it your own, just keep it loving and open! Something as simple as, “dad, can we talk?” will do the trick.

And don't lead off with "So guys, when you can't remember anything or when you die ...". Language matters here. And so does the WHY. Think of this chat as just one chapter in your - and their - overall life. How does this conversation fit into their life story? Their life narrative? Is leaving a legacy something that's important to them? If so, start there. Are their grandkids the most important thing in their life? Or maybe it's their trusted furry friends? Or both! There's an entry point to discuss how taking care of their finances may lead to caring for grandchildren or their pets! Like my family, are they fiercely independent? That's a good way to start too: "Mom, I know you're super independent, and I want to make sure you stay that way as long as you can. And if someday you aren't, I want to be there to make sure your wishes are followed your way".

If conversations aren’t something you do well in general with your folks, leading off with money might not be the best option. Instead, make a genuine effort to have other, less emotion-filled chats first. Work up to it. And when it is time to break the ice, do so with loving kindness.

Give your parents some grace (and yourself too).

No one wants to think about losing their independence, especially in our society.  I know. I watched my grandma stare longingly out the window of her assisted living facility … at her car. To her, it represented freedom. That woman was her own person and it crushed her soul to not be able to drive. We think she kept the car around just to look at it. And my mom? She’s the same. At 74 there’s no way I can tell her not to get up on a ladder to change a light bulb that’s been out for 3 seconds and wait for my cousin to come help her. And me? Yep – I'll be the same way (sorry kids). So I get it, as much as I can at this point in my life, because I know it will become even more evident the older I get. We don’t necessarily learn how to age well and gracefully in this culture (but that’s a topic for another post); that's neither right nor wrong, but rather something to be aware of - this isn’t an easy topic for a lot of people, so manage your expectations.

Keep the people and the problems separate.

In other words, don’t make mom and dad out to be the bad guys if they don’t do this conversation well. It’s the topic that’s tough, and that’s different than your parents being annoying (sometimes). Not personalizing it will help the conversation have a chance at continuing, even if it’s at a later date.  Love them, encourage them, and be prepared for this to be a process, not a one-time 30-min chat. You may need to try again later.  

You control you - nothing else.

Ideally, adults of all ages will act like adults and be willing to have challenging conversations. But the only thing you can be sure of is how you show up to the conversation. You control you - nothing else. You can’t make someone do something, no matter how good for them it's likely to be. If you approach this topic with that attitude you’re ultimately undermining any trust you have hopefully already developed in your family. And if that’s always been your approach, well you may need to take a tough look at how you view people and the power you think you have over them. A little humility will go a long way in ensuring a tough conversation goes smoothly and the people you love are protected and cared for in a meaningful way.

What if you're alone?

Or you see someone alone? Please reach out. Take care of each other. Be that trusted person to an older person in your community. If you think you know of financial exploitation taking place to an elderly person in your community you can report it to Adult Protective Services at or call 1-800-677-1116.

Need more help?

If you need guidance – seek it out! The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has some wonderful (though some are quite lengthy) materials on this topic if you’re interested in learning more. If you don’t yet have a trusted financial planner, estate planning attorney or insurance agent – start looking. Ask friends and family whom you trust for advice.  If you have one of these folks that you’re already working with, such as a financial planner, that’s a great place to start – they likely have the names of estate planning attorneys and insurance agents whom they work with on a regular basis. If you're looking for a place to start, financial coaching is a great way to start this journey and coaches will also have fantastic resources for you. Schedule a complimentary consultation here.

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