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 May 28

by Karen Purze

For most people, “the future” doesn’t often come up as a natural subject of conversation. But for many of us, our parents’ future is linked with our own — the same way it’s linked with our spouse or partner’s. What happens to them will affect us…yet we aren’t talking about the future with our parents and partners.

Each of us, whether single, married, or partnered needs to have an idea who will handle things for us if we can’t for some reason. Someone needs legal authority to make medical decisions for us if we’re in a car accident, have unplanned brain surgery, or are diagnosed with something incurable. Someone needs to be able to access our accounts if we are temporarily (or permanently) unable to manage our finances. And someone needs to take care of our kids, pets, livestock (or all of the above) if something happens to us. 

So let’s talk about the three biggest mistakes we make when talking about the future with our parents.

#1: Not Starting

The single biggest mistake we make is not starting. We’re busy doing other things, we live far away, it’s awkward, you name it. Yet we need to find ways to have these conversations about the future. The consequences of not knowing our partner’s or parents’ wishes can be devastating. (Read to the end to get some tips on how to start.)

#2: Giving Up too Early

I had the first conversation with my father about how my parents were going to pay for their care later in life when my dad retired, over twenty years before he died. I had read an article about the high cost of end of life care and wondered what my parents’ plans were.

It went terribly, ending with him telling me some equivalent of “mind your own business.” I let it go, but not before I had learned that 1) he did not have long-term care insurance and 2) that he was confident in his finances (good information I didn’t have before.)

The frustration of a failed conversation didn’t feel good, but I knew that my parents would lean on me and my brothers when the time came, so it was my business. It’s your business too, to understand what those closest to you might require of you in an emergency, or when they’re gone.

That first conversation was followed by dozens of short and unsatisfying conversations that gradually gave me the view I needed to carry out his wishes and manage his finances (and everything else) as he got sick. Honestly, it wasn’t until my dad was diagnosed with metastatic cancer that we made serious headway on some topics (like final wishes, and how he wanted care decisions to be made as he got sicker), but I’d laid the groundwork years before, and I think that made a difference.

The point is that this isn’t a “one and done” thing, and you might need to chip away from different angles to get a true understanding and a full picture. Don’t give up because you don’t get the response you want or don’t get all the information you need in your first conversation.

#3: Waiting too long

This is a little different than not starting. The first mistake is more about avoidance or inattention. Waiting too long is about unfulfilled intention. I thought my parents would be open to conversations about plans for the future because they were much older than me, and each had serious health conditions. Nope. They were as ready to talk about it as you are — meaning they didn’t have any particular urgency and not a lot of interest. Which I totally get (now, at least.)

But sometimes it really does get to be too late to have these conversations, and circumstances will overrun your good intentions to get it done in the fall, after New Year’s, when it’s not so nice out, “someday”.

The good news is that in many cases, it’s not too late. Read on for tips on getting started.

Tips for Talking About The Future with Parents

  • Begin with the end in mind. Think about what you want to accomplish. Are you trying to understand something? Make a decision? Take an action? Stay focused and let the goals for the meeting guide your conversation.
  • Be deliberate. Set a specific time and choose a place. While you might have some luck with fly-by conversations, it generally helps to deliberately set aside time for the conversation. Choose a place where everyone is comfortable, can hear, and has enough time for meaningful discussion.
  • Give a “trigger warning.” Let the person know ahead of time what you’d like to talk about. Some people prefer to mull things over and don’t like to improvise. Giving a heads up on the subject matter or the decisions to be made can lead to a more productive conversation.
  • Assign homework. Share a book or an article to help educate your friend, family member, or spouse in advance about the options on the table.
  • Step lightly. Remember that you’re in this together. It might not be “fun”, but that doesn’t mean you can’t laugh. Use humor when you can, and try not to judge. This isn’t the time to rehash old battles.
  • End with a plan. Your plan can be anything from “Let’s talk again later” to “Can we agree to decide by Tuesday?” Try to end with an agreement on a specific action to take (and by whom.)

Conversations on touchy topics can sometimes be uncomfortable, but with some preparation and persistence, they can bring you closer to your confidants and give you all greater confidence that you’re ready for whatever might lie ahead.

If you’re looking for tips on what specifically you need to talk about, here are 5 critical conversation topics to get you started.

Good luck!

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About the author

Karen Purze is the author of Life In Motion: A Guide for Gathering Life’s Vital Details, a workbook to help people get their affairs in order. She is currently working on a memoir about her caregiving experience. Sign up for the Life in Motion Guide newsletter to be the first to hear more!

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