There were plenty of Thanksgivings and birthdays where my dad forced us into fervid family ‘discussions’ about climate change when we could just as easily been having critical estate planning conversations about my parents’ long-term care strategy or other important topics that never seemed quite as urgent. When I had to take over their medical, legal, financial, and property matters due to illness, I was glad we’d at least done some basic estate planning. I had the necessary documents when I needed them, which was great. But I quickly developed a list of things I wish we’d talked about “before”…and wished we could have a refund on some of the time spent on The Climate Change Conversation.
Here are the top five topics I wish we’d talked about instead:
#1 Money: Who’s Paying?
Money is first on the list because it’s so important (but I’m kind of cheating because we actually did talk about money.) It’s no secret that long-term care in the U.S. is expensive, as is medical care. If you think you’ll outlive your savings, your kids should know. Caregiving for parents is a financial hardship that many Americans — particularly women — are encountering without warning. Know what care costs, and how you’ll pay for help if you need it.
If you haven’t talked to your adult children — in broad terms — about your finances, it’s time. They need to know: Who will pay the bills if you cannot?
And I mean that in all the literal senses: where will the money come from, as well as who will send the actual payments. Create a financial power of attorney document to authorize an “agent” (a person of your choice) to make financial and legal decisions for you if you’re not able. Then share the document as well as relevant account information with that person.
#2 Sharing the Care: Who’s Who?
When my parents needed help during a medical crisis, family, friends, and others pulled us through until we were ready to bring in professional caregivers. I knew who my parents’ closest friends were and how to contact them, but only because I’d thrown a surprise party a few years earlier and had tracked down the info then. I knew who their professional advisors were, but only because I used them myself. If your children don’t know who should be called on for help in an emergency, let them know: Who can help in an emergency, and how can they be reached?
#3 Medical Matters: Are You On Something?
If you’re relying on someone for help in an emergency, will they know how to answer important questions or find important documents? When my mom had a stroke, the doctor asked about her medication. There were four of us there, including my dad who’d lived with her for over 40 years and none of us had enough information to answer the ER doctor’s questions about what she took or who prescribed it. Your emergency contacts should know: What medications are you on, and for what conditions?
#4 Your Final Wishes: Who’s in Charge if You’re Not?
Let’s pretend there’s been an emergency. If you can’t speak, someone is going to make treatment decisions (or final arrangements) for you. Who will that be? Have you talked to them about what quality of life means to you? Or about your preferences for final arrangements? Consider this: there are over a dozen decisions that need to be made more or less immediately when you die — and that’s just the decisions related to the disposition of your body. If you’re alive, but there’s only one big decision to make, it can be even harder. Save your friends and family some time and anguish. Let them know: What are your end-of-life care wishes?
#5 Skip the Scavenger Hunt: What’s Where?
Taking over my parents’ affairs was a monumental task. It took months to create a consolidated view of all their medical, legal, financial, and property assets and obligations. Not because they had some massive estate, but because it takes a lot to keep any life in motion. It’s easy to take the details for granted.
Your estate documents provide the legal framework for someone to assist you and know what your wishes are if something happens to you. Beyond that is “everything else” — the information on what property you own, where your financial accounts are, and what other obligations you have that may need tending to or taking care of if you’re not around to do it yourself.
Whether you buy a workbook like the one I created or make your own system to organize all the information, your adult children should know: What will it take to manage (or settle) your affairs?
These conversations can be awkward and difficult, but ultimately rewarding. I know, because I was lucky to have time with my parents to figure it all out together. That’s how I also know that none of these talks were any worse than The Climate Change Conversation…and they had a much higher return on investment.
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