Essential Questions You Have to Ask Your Aging Parents

Think the birds and bees is the most awkward chat you'll ever have with Mom and Dad? Think again. Adulthood brings other uncomfortable conversations: wills, long-term care, and end-of-life issues. Here's how to these handle delicate subjects with care.

Photo by Troels Graugaard/Getty Images

On Their Finances…

The Big Question: Do You Have a Will?

A will determines the future of not only money and property but also pets and even token mementos. When someone dies without a will, her estate is divided in probate court, where a judge decides who gets the assets. "This can cost thousands of dollars and take months," says Christina Lesher, a Houston-based elder-law attorney. "Even if the deceased told a loved one her wishes before she died, a verbal statement won't hold up in court. The judge will base his ruling on laws and legal precedents of the state."

How to Bring It Up

"I don't want to upset you, but if something happened to you, I would want to know that your wishes were being honored. Do you have a will?"

While You're at It, Ask…

  • Have you consulted a reliable financial planner who can help anticipate your needs as you age?
  • Will you give me or another trusted person power of attorney over your financial affairs in case there's a time you can't handle them yourself?
  • Do you have an authorized user on your bank and investment accounts?
  • Do you need help handling some of your financial responsibilities, like double-checking your credit-card statements and reviewing your bills?
  • Are you willing to have a joint checking account with me so I can help you pay bills if necessary?

On Their Living Situation…

The Big Question: Have You Thought About Long-Term-Care Insurance?

Most long-term assisted-living or nursing-home expenses are not covered by Medicare, says Joy Loverde, the author of The Complete Eldercare Planner. And long-term care, which includes anything from extended home assistance to a nursing home, is very costly.

How to Bring It Up

"I read about how much assisted living can cost, and I was stunned. I would want you to have the best care if it ever came to that. Have you looked into insurance?"

While You're at It, Ask…

  • Do you want to live in your house for as long as possible? Are there things we need to do to your house so it's safe and comfortable for you as you age? Can we make some of those changes now?
  • Are you willing to move into a smaller place that's easier to manage, like a condo? When?
  • Have either of you thought about whether you would want to stay in the house if you were alone?
  • Would you be willing to hire someone to help you at home if you can't do it on your own anymore?
  • Would you consider moving in with me or one of my siblings if we all agree that you need help with your personal care or aren't safe at home alone anymore? How do you feel about moving into an assisted-living facility?
  • Can I help you scout out quality assisted-living facilities and nursing homes now, so we know what's available and what you would prefer in case you need one in the future?

On Their Health…

The Big Question: Do You Have Advance Health-Care Directives?

Advance health-care directives include a living will (which gives written instructions on the degree of life-sustaining measures that should be taken), a health proxy (which appoints another party to make health-related decisions in the event that a person is unable to do so), and a HIPPA release (a document that allows another person access to someone's medical records, which is useful for insurance claims). "It's difficult to make decisions in a crisis, and memories about conversations differ," says Lesher. "Having clear, written instructions protects families from becoming embroiled in arguments or, even worse, lawsuits."

How to Bring It Up

"If you were ever on life support, I would be really torn up and not in the best frame of mind to make a decision. I know we talked about how you feel, but I think it would give both of us some relief if you put it in writing."

While You're at It, Ask…

  • Will you consider giving your doctor permission to talk to us in case we have questions about your medical treatment?
  • Can one of us accompany you to some doctor's appointments? We recognize your right to privacy, but maybe we can help keep track of everything your doctor says at your visit.
  • How do you feel about being kept alive with ventilators, feeding tubes, or other interventions? And under what circumstances would you want that? Do we all understand what these terms mean?
  • If you have advance-care planning documents, where do you keep them? Have you shared them with any family members, doctors, or clergy?