Many adult children are taking a greater role in their aging parents’ financial lives, a natural outgrowth of increased longevity as well as rising rates of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in the senior population.
Yet getting involved in their parents’ financial affairs isn’t always easy or natural for children, and some miss the signs that their parents need a helping hand to help them navigate their money matters.
To discuss how adult children can provide help to their aging parents–and how they can broach the topic in the first place–I recently chatted with veteran Wall Street Journal reporter Jeff Opdyke. His latest book, Protecting Your Parents’ Money: The Essential Guide to Helping Mom and Dad Navigate the Finances of Retirement is essential reading for adult children who would like to make sure their parents have the highest quality of life they can possibly have during retirement without outliving their nest eggs. The book also includes tips for understanding Medicare, identifying and warding against financial fraud, and selecting nursing homes and retirement communities.
Christine Benz: Do you have any advice for conducting a financial “temperature check” of elderly parents? How can I tell if they need help, from me or from a financial advisor?
Jeff Opdyke: Pay attention to what’s going on with your parents or grandparents. A few years ago, I was at my grandmother’s house (she essentially raised me, so I see her as my mom) and I noticed she had a copy of Rolling Stone magazine on her coffee table. Now, my grandmother is in her 90s and would not know the Jonas Brothers from the Doobie Brothers, so there’s no way she’d have purposefully subscribed to Rolling Stone.
Clearly, she’d been sold the subscription by a telemarketer. But the event prompted me to talk to her about her finances and ask her how I might help her in the future avoid these kinds of unnecessary costs (she lives on a fixed income, so I know wasted expenses can be detrimental in the event she needs a nursing home or some form of assisted living). I reminded her that I’m here to help her deal with the finances of aging. She called me months later to help her and my aunt understand the pros and cons of a reverse mortgage and ultimately to guide them through the process.
So, pay attention with your eyes. And pay attention with your gut. You know when things don’t feel right. Go with those feelings and begin to look and listen for signs of financial duress/stress in your parent’s life.
Benz: What are the key mistakes that children of elderly parents make when it comes to financial matters?
Opdyke: Ignoring the issue. Adult children are often scared to talk to a parent for one of two reasons: One, they’re uncomfortable contemplating their parent’s mortality and, thus, want to avoid discussing it; or two, they think Mom/Dad has no interest in talking about such a personal topic.
Whatever the case, the reality is that one day this problem is going to simply drop into your lap, either because your parent died or becomes somehow incapacitated. And suddenly you or someone in your family is going to be forced to deal with all the stuff that must be dealt with, such as bills, account statements, insurance policies, retirement accounts, pensions, and what to do with the house or the car. There are so many end-of-life issues that have to be wrapped up or managed, and it’s far better to go into that eventuality with some level of preparation and knowledge, instead of having to face it blind.
The only way to get that knowledge is to realize that the only person who can help you is your mom or dad. You’d be surprised how many parents actually want to have this conversation but are too scared to approach you because they think you don’t want to talk. They want someone whom they can trust but don’t want to feel they’re imposing on you. So buck up and dive in. It’s the best way to begin dealing with an issue that you’re going to be forced to deal with at some point anyway.
Benz: You read so much about how financial predators can take advantage of elderly people. How can I help my parent find a competent and ethical financial advisor?
Opdyke: Start with the Financial Planning Association or the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors. Both are well-respected organizations, and both offer a free online search function that helps you find financial planners in your parent’s area.
More important, both organizations are composed of planners/advisors who work on a fee-only basis. This, to me, is the smartest approach to financial planning. You’re paying for someone’s time and expertise, just as you would pay a doctor. You’re not going to be sold a basket of often-questionable products that the advisor is hawking just to generate an extra commission. That’s typically the worst way to go because the advisor’s self-interest can too easily trump your parent’s financial needs.
Select a few planners or advisors to interview. Call them in advance, tell them what you’re trying to accomplish for Mom/Dad, and arrange a time to go meet the planner with your parent. You want hire someone with whom both you and your parent feel comfortable.
Benz: What are the key questions to ask when attempting to help my parent find the right retirement community?
Opdyke: First off, what can your parent afford? Retirement communities can be very–very–expensive. At the high end are continuing-care retirement communities (so-called CCRCs) that are designed like small neighborhoods or high-end condominium complexes. Mom/Dad move in long before they need any kind of care, and as they progress through retirement, they move into an assisted-living center that’s part of the community and then into a nursing home, also part of the community, if needed. It’s a great transitional design because the elderly really dislike leaving the comfort of what they know as normal. But CCRCs are pricey because they’re part real estate investment, part assisted-living/nursing home. They start at $100,000 or more to buy a unit, and then cost a few thousand dollars a month in fees. So they are only for parents who can afford the cost, or for families who will pay those costs for Mom/Dad (you recoup all or more of the cost when you sell the unit after a parent dies or moves into the nursing home permanently).
At the other end of the spectrum is nursing home care paid for by Medicaid. That’s for who are effectively indigent retirees who do not have the assets necessary to pay for a nursing home on their own.
In the middle is a wide range of housing options ranging from private-pay nursing homes to communal homes. What’s right for your parent boils down to a few questions:
1. What can Mom/Dad (of the family) afford?
2. Where does Mom/Dad want to go, based on what is affordable?
Once you and your parent have decided on what’s affordable, you need to do your homework to find the best option. That’s largely a word-of-mouth campaign. You can check all the various state agencies that keep track of local elder-care facilities, and you can find those by checking with your local area Agency on Aging. But the real test is how the people you know rate the places you’re