The Conversation to Start with Your Family

Take the first step and begin the dialogue with your family and friends.

A call after 10:00 PM never brings good news. My mom found my dad on the floor and asked me what she should do. I told her to call 911 and I’d meet her at the hospital. During intake we were asked for medical history, medications, and details about my dad’s health that neither my mom nor I could confidently provide. Sadly, my dad just had one drink too many and had passed out. My parents were both in generally good health, but this first event was a wake-up call and I realized I wasn’t prepared to be the advocate my parents might need one day.

When I got a call from the Emergency Room (ER) about my dad the second time, I was well prepared. After his first visit, I realized that even though the hospital had electronic medical records for him, the medical team will turn to family to understand medical history, medications, and complaints. They don’t have (or take) the time to read the records they already have. This time my dad had broken his hip playing racquetball and was going to need surgery.

After the first visit to the ER, I made notes on my dad’s medical history and medications and I started to carry copies of both my parents’ durable and medical powers of attorney on my smartphone. The medical power of attorney gives me permission to represent my parents for medical needs and the durable power of attorney gives me the ability to access and make decisions on my parents’ financial assets. Thankfully, my parents had done their estate planning and told me where I could find these papers should they be needed. Having this completed before it was needed made a huge difference for me as their adult child when I needed to step in and help.

Before these medical events happened to my parents, my husband and I viewed retirement planning as a financial plan. While the finances are important, I now know that the likelihood of having a health crisis gets greater and greater as we age. According to the Department of Health & Human Services, 7 out of 10 Americans turning 65 today will need three or more years of long-term-care services before they die. That is three years that someone will need to help with care as well as manage some portion of your personal assets.

Apparently many Americans aren’t prepared or planning for an early retirement or ready when a crisis strikes. A 2014 survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that 49 percent of retirees surveyed had retired earlier than they had planned. The survey found that many Americans find themselves retiring unexpectedly, with 61 percent citing health problems or disability and another 18 percent citing care for a spouse or another family member.

Information is a very powerful tool

Most families are not prepared when they need to step in and help mom or dad in the face of a crisis or medical issue, and the consequences of being unprepared can be severe among families—causing chaos, confusion, and loss of money. Parents may tell you the plans are in the file cabinet or safe, but vague directions can make it stressful to try and locate the documents. More often, you need access to information like medical history and medications as well as information on how to manage the household and pay bills until a parent can get back on their feet. Finding that information can be overwhelming.

Today, more than $56 billion is sitting with state and federal treasurers because family members didn’t know about bank, retirement, and insurance accounts. If mom or dad doesn’t get back on their feet, the accounts sit dormant and eventually get turned over to the proper authorities to hold until claimed.

For all these reasons, starting the conversation with mom and dad is important to begin well before it’s needed. Some ways to begin the dialogue include:

  • Ask them how they plan on spending their 60s, 70s, and 80s. Where do they want to live and how do they want to spend their time?
  • Request recommendations on how to approach estate planning. When did they do theirs and how did they decide who should be their advocate if one of them is unable to speak for the other?
  • Share a story of a friend or colleague who faced a difficult family health issue and talk about how your family might have handled the situation differently.

As you have these discussions, hopefully you will begin to see how your parents view and expect to spend their retirement. With almost half of adults having to retire earlier than expected, and 70 percent of those over 65 years of age needing some form of long-term care, one of the easiest ways to help mom and dad realize they need a plan if they don’t have one in place could mean that you lead by example and share your plans with them first.

What matters?

The two most important documents for anyone over the age of 18 years are a durable power of attorney and a medical power of attorney. They are the tools a loved one will have to use to help you while you are living and can be invaluable in the crunch of a medical emergency. Before my son leaves for college we are getting these documents in place. Without a medical power of attorney, even as the parent and one that pays the medical insurance, a doctor is unable to discuss my son’s health with me.

Information is the greatest asset you can provide to those that would step in and help you. I hope you will have a chance to begin the conversation with your parents to understand how they plan to spend the rest of their lives.

For a free guide that lists the key documents, accounts, and details you should have organized for your loved ones from the best-selling book MemoryBanc: Your Workbook for Organizing Life, visit:

2 thoughts on “The Conversation to Start with Your Family

Leave a Reply