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Important Questions to Ask Aging Parents

Remember "the talk" your parents initiated (maybe) with you many years ago? Well, now it's your turn to sit on the opposite side of the table. If you're the adult child of aging parents, it's important to open up a conversation about their future needs and wishes. The best time to do so is when your parents are relatively healthy and active. Otherwise, you may find yourself making critical decisions on their behalf in the midst of a crisis--without a road map.

The reality, though, is that many adult children would rather avoid such a discussion, because it can create feelings of fear and loss on both sides, and adult children want to avoid getting too personal by asking about financial or other matters. Here are some questions in the areas of finances, health, living situation, and memorial wishes that can help you start a conversation.

Finances

Ask

  • What institutions hold your assets? Ask your parents to create a list of their bank, brokerage, and retirement accounts, including account numbers and online user names and passwords, if applicable. You should also know where to find their insurance policies (life, home, auto, disability, long-term care), Social Security cards, titles to their house and vehicles, outstanding loan documents, and past tax returns. If your parents have a safe-deposit box or home safe, make sure you can access the key or combination.
  • Do you currently work with any financial, legal, or tax advisors? If so, get a list of names with contact information.
  • How often do you meet with your financial advisor? Do you think it would be helpful to do so soon? Would you like me to come?
  • Do you need help paying monthly bills or reviewing items like credit card statements, medical receipts, or property tax bills?
  • Do you have a durable power of attorney? A durable power of attorney is a legal document that allows a named individual (such as an adult child) to manage all aspects of a parent's financial life if he or she becomes disabled or incompetent.
  • Do you have a will? If so, find out where it's located and who is named as executor. If it's more than five years old, your parents may want to review it to make sure their current wishes are represented. Ask if they have any specific personal property disposition requests that they want to discuss now (e.g., Aunt Agnes should get the china set).
  • Are your beneficiary designations up-to-date? Designated beneficiaries on insurance policies, pensions, IRAs, and investments trump any instructions in your parents' wills.
  • Do you have an overall estate plan? A trust? A living trust can help manage an estate while your parents are still living.

Health

Ask

  • What doctors do you currently see? Do they have experience treating seniors? Are you happy with the care you're getting? If your parents begin to need multiple medical specialists and/or home health services, you might consider hiring a geriatric care manager, especially if you don't live close by.
  • What medications are you currently taking?
  • What health insurance do you have? In addition to Medicare, which kicks in at age 65, find out if your parents have or should consider Medigap insurance--a private policy that covers many costs and services not covered by Medicare--and long-term care insurance, which covers the need for extended medical care.
  • Do you have an advanced medical directive? This document includes your parents' wishes regarding life-support measures and the name of the person who will communicate on their behalf with health-care professionals. If your parents do not want heroic life-saving measures to be taken on their behalf, this document is a must.

Living situation

Ask

  • Do you plan to stay in your current home, or have you thought about downsizing to a condominium or townhouse?
  • Is there anything I can do now to make your home more comfortable? This might include smaller projects like installing hand rails and night lights in the bathroom to bigger projects like moving the washing machine out of the basement, installing a stair climber, or moving a bedroom to the first floor.
  • Do you employ certain people or companies for home maintenance projects (i.e., heating contractor, plumber, electrician, fall cleanup)?

Memorial wishes

Ask

  • Do you want to be buried or cremated? Do you have a burial plot picked out?
  • Do you have any specific music or reading requests, or other wishes for your memorial service?

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The best time to start a conversation with your parents about their future needs and wishes is when they are still relatively healthy and active. Otherwise, you may find yourself making critical decisions on their behalf in the midst of a crisis--without a road map.