When and how to help aging parents

Photo: Darnok/morguefile.com 

Q. I worry about my parents. They handle their own affairs but I think they need help — but they won’t talk about it. How can I get them to have this conversation?
— Want to help

A. You’re entering really tough waters, but we’re glad you’re concerned about your parents.

Much depends on your parents’ health and mental capacity, plus your relationship with them.

Sometimes when parents don’t want to talk about their own finances, you can approach the conversation from a different direction. Ask their opinions on your own finances and see if they’ll join you to meet with your advisor, said Vicky Tomaro, an Investment Advisor Representative with Tomaro Financial Group in Wall.

“If you give the advisor a heads-up about your concerns in advance, then he/she can address those concerns as if they were yours and not your parents’,” she said. “The advisor can make recommendations and ask the parents for their opinions.”

That’s one way to open the discussion without your parents necessarily realizing your intent.

When grown children are concerned with aging parents, there’s a fine line in deciding when to step in.

It’s possible that they’re doing just fine, said Nancy Heslin Reading, an estate planning attorney with Benz & Reading in Newton.

“As couples age, they often seem to merge into one personality – one can hear, the other can see – and between the two of them, they do fine,” she said. “The house might not look as well maintained, they may occasionally miss paying a bill, but we can say the same about many working couples who are much younger.”

Over the years, Reading said, seniors they have built a world together, and it is their world. In short, three’s a crowd.

“If you are at all sensitive to human dignity issues, you have to let them live in their world as long as they possibly can,” Reading said. “It will end soon enough.”

It’s possible that your parents don’t want to share because they are distrustful of your motives.

“If by managing their affairs you mean managing their money, that is asking a lot while both parents are still alive,” Reading said. “Usually the kids don’t get involved until the first parent dies.”

If you think they need help now, you should build trust gradually, Reading said. Help them with chores when it’s obvious to them that there is nothing in it for you. Offer to carry the laundry or the groceries, or return items to the store for them. Arrive with a rake in the fall or a shovel when it has snowed.

“Yes, this takes a lot of time, but they are your parents. They are worth it,” Reading said. “Someday it likely will be you, and your kids are watching.”

If you are sure they need help – perhaps cable and electric are periodically disconnected because they forget to pay the bills or they are forgetting doctor’s appointments and confusing medications — in short, if everything is a hot mess, Reading said, you must take action.

She’s guessing that your parents have not executed powers of attorney and health care powers of attorney (health care proxies), or you would probably know.

“If your parents have done no planning, you will need to petition the court to appoint a guardian to take over managing their affairs,” Reading said. “Courts will not appoint a guardian without a showing that Mom and Dad cannot manage their own affairs.”

Reading said unless they both have dementia diagnoses, this can be a tall order. Unfortunately these days, with the Alzheimer’s epidemic, guardianships are commonplace.

“You likely will need the assistance of an attorney,” Reading said. “The court generally orders that the fees of the attorney are to be paid from the assets of the alleged incapacitated person or persons – i.e., Mom and Dad.”

Good luck, and be patient with them.

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This story was first posted in October 2015.

NJMoneyHelp.com presents certain general financial planning principles and advice, but should never be viewed as a substitute for obtaining advice from a personal professional advisor who understands your unique individual circumstances.