6 Tips for discussing finances with your parent

Learn ways you can make the difficult conversation about health and finances easier.

October 05, 2022

7 min read

Cropped shot of an attractive young woman sitting and explaining financial documents to her grandmother in their home

Discussing money matters is taboo for many. If this rings true for you, then questioning an older parent or family member about how they plan on paying for senior care – no matter how well intentioned – is potentially even more difficult.

“Some adult children say, ‘I really can’t talk about money, it’s not a comfortable topic for us.’ But it’s a necessary conversation,” says Sheridan Daniel, Vice President of Operations and Product Development at Atria Senior Living. “However, with aging parents, the conversation about health and finances will either be done by plan or by crisis.”

1. Consider your relationship dynamics

Take a moment to reflect on your general experience and interactions with your parent, especially around the topic of money. Throughout your life, has your parent openly discussed financial matters such as debt, investments and budgeting? Is your mother or father comfortable asking questions about your future plans or offering advice (both solicited and unsolicited) about money? Have they voluntarily approached the topic of living wills and estate planning?

“You need to know the approach you can take with your parents,” says Daniel. “I remember talking about wills and topics like that with my mother when she was in her 60s. When she worked, I knew what her salary was. I knew what her insurance was. She was open with those things.”

Allow your relationship to craft your approach, and maneuver around any predictable sensitivities. If, despite your best efforts, your parent still resists, there are ways to overcome their reluctance.

2. Understand it’s not all about money

At its heart, a conversation about money is not one-hundred-percent about money. It’s about the life your parent wishes – and can realistically afford – to have. If your parent still works, how do they envision retirement? Generally speaking, what legacy would they like to leave behind? In case of a medical emergency, who is their health care proxy? Have they considered a power of attorney?

“Don’t talk about just money. Talk about the big picture, and make sure your parent feels a sense of control of what’s going on,” says Daniel. “It has to be what they envision. Discuss their retirement goals and what it will take to achieve them, and work from there.”

Open the conversation by asking about their opinion on assisted living. Ask for advice about financial planning for retirement and other relevant topics to get the dialogue flowing. Sharing your own plans and ideas or referencing current events and anecdotes about others are easy icebreakers and ways you can gauge how your parent may feel about more in-depth conversations later.

3. Don’t put off talking about it

If your parent is thriving and handling their finances well, they may feel it is too soon to discuss such matters. However, it’s never too early to approach your parent about finances and care. If possible, do it while your parent is at ease and in the best of physical and cognitive health.

“I either see one or the other: Somebody has planned it out very neatly beforehand or something devastating has happened – and no one wants to discuss finances with a parent who is hospitalized or dealing with a loss,” says Daniel.

Gently explain the importance and advantage of being proactive instead of reactive. Reassure your parent they are still in control of their finances and that you’d like to start thinking about it while they can make clear, intentional decisions and not after something goes wrong.

4. Approach gently and do your homework beforehand

Before digging into your parent’s financial information, do your research.

“If your parent has assets, they got them by being smart and financially savvy. Show that you’ve done some research while taking into account how they envision things,” says Daniels. “They’re going to want to be a part of that. I’ve seen many children foster trust and respect with their parents when they freely share their findings with them.”

Whether your parent envisions a retirement community, living in the family home for the rest of their life or uprooting to the Caribbean, lay out that research for them.

Where’s the easiest place to start? The Internet. Start with a simple search: “Is there financial planning for assisted living?,” “How much does it cost to live in a senior living community?”, “Real estate in Jamaica,” “The cost of at-home senior care,” and so on.

Consider these relevant topics as you research:

5. Consult with your family and supportive network

Your parent shared their vision for retirement and granted you financial access. Now what? Even with all of the knowledge about what an older adult wants, there’s little one can do without being appointed as power of attorney (POA) and/or health care proxy.

If your parent hasn’t appointed a POA and/or a health care proxy and the family has conflicting opinions and expectations, it’s fair for these emotions to be amplified when the topic is approached.

“When you don’t communicate with the full support structure, it can turn into a quagmire. Also, you may think, ‘I’m the oldest son in my family. I have decisions that I can make,’ but your mother has a sister, and if you don’t talk to her, then it’s going to be a battle,” Daniel says. “Then, the power of attorney process turns stagnant. Nothing happens.”

If you’re able to approach these critical topics while your parent is in good health and emotionally stable, do so gently. Remind your parent that you want what’s best for them and, ultimately, it’s about what they want. Manage your expectations and encourage other relatives to do the same. Don’t assume the responsibility will be handed to you.

“Some older adults may say to their child, ‘Hey, I don’t need you to control my money. I have an accountant who I trust, so the money’s fine. But I don’t trust my accountant with my health. So, here’s my health care proxy,’” Daniel says.

If this happens, give it a week or two and schedule time to revisit the conversation in person with all involved parties until a decision has been made. Tap into their doctor, financial adviser, elder care attorney and geriatric care manager for support and expertise when planning what’s best for your parent and their finances.

6. Handle crisis directly and with care

Hopefully, you can approach your parent while they are making well-informed financial decisions on their own and able to engage in meaningful conversations about their future. However, be aware of these signs that indicate more immediate action is needed regarding an older adult’s care and finances:

  • You’re worried about their safety when alone
  • You’re worried or concerned about their health, especially if they have a progressive disease or they’ve had a recent accident or fall
  • The condition of their home has become concerning or unsafe
  • They often forget to pay bills or seem to be struggling financially
  • They are possibly exhibiting early signs of dementia or cognitive impairment

“Being direct is going to be important. Sensitive, respectful, but direct,” says Daniel.

“If someone is in the early stages of dementia, then I will direct the family to speak to their doctor and a geriatric care manager, and then an elder care attorney. This is a scary thing for an aging parent. They know what’s happening to them and they still have very clear moments. When they have those clear moments, you have to express what the plan is.”

Atria is always here to help

Allowing another person to comb through their personal financial details – even a well-intentioned adult child – can be difficult for your parent. Allow your parent time to work through this process, even if they are reluctant to share details.

Also, anticipate having this conversation more than once. Financial planning for retirement is a lot of work and it’s unlikely to accomplish everything in one day. If you need assistance, tap into the trusted professionals at Atria Senior Living. The dedicated employees at our senior living communities have connected thousands of families like yours to the expertise they need. Stop by for a visit or contact your nearest community for a personal consultation.

Guide to Discussing Senior Living Financing with your Parent (PDF)

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Not sure where to start?

Whether you’ve provided care for a parent for years or are just starting to notice signs of cognitive decline in a spouse, caregiving comes with challenges every step of the way. Explore our five areas of the journey for tailored support along your path.

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