What to ask your elderly parents about what's next
February 1, 2024 10:41 AM   Subscribe

In a previous question I mentioned needing to talk to my elderly parents about longterm planning and user basalganglia said it was "probably a whole 'nother question in itself". So this is that whole 'nother question. What questions should I be asking my aging parents about their next steps? Assume I know absolutely nothing about aging, retirement, long-term care, and so on.

Some background on my parents.
-We all live in the USA
-They are well off. I don't know their net worth, and they are uncomfortable discussing the specifics of money with me, but based on context clues I can estimate probably in the low 8 figures. They own their home outright. Based on what I understand they also manage their money extremely responsibly and live well within their means.
-They are retired and living off savings, retirement accounts, and Social Security. Social Security is the smallest portion of this (see above on "they are well off")
-They are currently in very good health and take excellent care of themselves, exercising daily, eating well, and seeing doctors and dentists on schedule. Both have minor chronic health conditions that are very well managed. Unlike money, they are completely comfortable discussing their health with me. I can also see visible cues that they are in good health, such as being able to keep up with their home maintenance and hygiene. They're also in good emotional health, with a loving marriage, and continue to learn and expand their horizons.
-However, I am aware that the health of an aging person can change in an instant.
-They also maintain friendships and hobbies, and I don't currently have concerns about them becoming isolated. However, my father is definitely the outgoing one who "leads" their social life as a couple and manages the social calendar. If something were to happen to him, I do worry that my mother would become isolated and lonely
-They both have good relationships with their living siblings. All of my grandparents are deceased.
-I know that they have wills though I don't know when they were updated.
-Slightly more unusual part of my situation: I have an adult sibling who lives with them and it is unclear if my sibling is able to live independently. My sibling doesn't give straight answers when asked about their goals/plans/dreams or wellbeing.

So: what are all the questions that I, as their child, should ask them? About their plans for themselves, their plans for my sibling, their assets? Other than wills, are the other legal documents people have that I should know about? Please give me the questions that you think are too basic, too patronizing to tell me to ask. I must stress that I know nothing about this topic.
posted by robot cat to Grab Bag (21 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This Reddit post is aimed at people whose parents are in need of more care/oversight than yours seem to need at this point, but I have it bookmarked and peek at it often as I move into more of hands-on role in helping my own mother.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 10:48 AM on February 1 [7 favorites]

Best answer: my father is actively dying right now and I just found out he doesn't have any sort of will. of course now is not a great time for my parents to be dealing with that sort of stuff, so he'll probably die without one, which hopefully won't be a problem for my mom.

so start with the basics: will or last testament? (I see they do) advanced directive? how do they feel about being resuscitated? do they know what they want done with their remains?

you have a great opportunity to help them get things set up, while they are healthy and lucid. it will make whatever comes easier on them, on you, and other family members.

I would also, if you feel you can, gently push your parents to talk a bit more openly about financial stuff and your sibling to participate in discussion of plans for their future.

my family used to be "don't talk about all kinds of stuff" but now with illness and immanent death, oh man, we talk about all sorts of things with ease and lack of embarrassment. it's like a whole new relationship!
posted by supermedusa at 10:59 AM on February 1 [3 favorites]

Having wills is great. You should also talk to them about setting up Power of Attorney so that you (or whomever else they designate) is able to make financial and health decisions should they become incapacitated.
posted by number9dream at 11:11 AM on February 1 [3 favorites]

Low eight figures? In good health? With good relationships? You may well just be called in by their professionals when it is time to worry about this.
posted by I EAT TAPAS at 11:20 AM on February 1 [8 favorites]

I don't know the specifics, but I believe there's a way to set up a trust that holds assets like a house to "protect" them from being taken and sold to cover medical expenses, but that this only holds up if it's set up more than 5 years before the people in question pass away. Hopefully if they have a financial planner they're already on top of things. I think that an estate planner would be a specific expert who would be able to work out whether doing something like this is important for them.
posted by rivenwanderer at 11:33 AM on February 1

Best answer: Even though they don't like to talk about their finances, would they be comfortable at least putting together a list of all of their accounts and storing their passwords in a password manager or some other secure but easy-to-reference location? When my dad passed, those things were not in order and it took a lot of time and effort to figure out where all of his finances were and how to access them.
posted by darkchocolatepyramid at 11:36 AM on February 1 [5 favorites]

Best answer: You can start doing your own end-of-life prep! Write your regular will, designate your health proxy, think about what needs to go on your living will, etc. Fatal illness and/or sudden death can come for any of us at any age, and it makes sense for you to do all of this regardless of whether it gives you an opening with your parents.

But surely one of the best ways to open this particular conversation with your parents has to be to say, "Mom, dad, I'm writing my living will, do you have any pointers for me? What am I not thinking of? What did you put in yours that I should be copying? BTW who is your lawyer who helped you draft your will and decide what to do with your assets? Can I use the same law firm? Oh and hey, I am also working on compiling all my passwords and logins - do you know where one should put such a list? Where did you put yours? Is it in a safe or a safety deposit box or something? I have no idea how to do all this, will you please teach me?"
posted by MiraK at 11:59 AM on February 1 [12 favorites]

Response by poster: Low eight figures? In good health? With good relationships? You may well just be called in by their professionals when it is time to worry about this.

Who is "their professionals" in this context? They don't have household staff or anything like that.

I also don't want to be caught off guard if I'm "called in by their professionals" and "their professionals" make bad suggestions.

(And I could be wrong about their net worth. It is only a best guess based on context clues.)
posted by robot cat at 12:00 PM on February 1 [1 favorite]

Best answer: > Who is "their professionals" in this context?

Their lawyers, their financial advisors, and perhaps also their tax people.
posted by MiraK at 12:03 PM on February 1 [4 favorites]

Best answer: If they have as much money as you suggest, I think that you should ask them who their lawyer is and who their financial advisor is. They may also have an accountant. And also who is named as executor in their wills. It would also be helpful to know roughly what their will states at the moment.

The other thing to try and encourage them to think about is power of attorney and setting that up before it is needed, if they haven't. As a potential next of kin you need to know if there are any arrangements in place already, and roughly what their expectations are.

Finally, it is helpful to have a general idea about any funeral wishes, but that is a tricky conversation to start. If you have been to family funerals you may have a general idea about what they might expect and that's helpful in and of itself.
posted by plonkee at 12:05 PM on February 1 [3 favorites]

My Father-in-Law's funeral is tomorrow. He had thoroughly expressed his wishes for a funeral. They are relatively simple and straightforward so that has made things a bit easier on my spouse in the last week or two. In the recent past other funerals have given my parents an opportunity to at least express what they didn't want. Thankfully they are in great shape for their age so I don't need to act quickly but it is something to think about.
posted by mmascolino at 12:58 PM on February 1

the biggest concern for me would be about your adult sibling? are you "stuck" with their care when your parents die? or have your parents provided for the care and finances and housing and future of your sibling. if you don't have the means or interest to care for your sibling, figure all that out now is essential.

you need to find out where their wills and financial and healthcare POA and other documents are. who is their lawyer? who did they name executor of their estate? is it you? all of this is important and can be communicated without them telling you their net worth if they're uncomfortable with that.

do they have a DNR? do they live in a death with dignity state? how do they want their end of life handled? is there anyone you might not think of that they want told when they are close to the end or have died?

since they own their house do they have some kind of "transfer on death" deed (i don't remember exactly what it's called)?

a lot of this stuff will vary by state if you're in the US.

do they have a lock box at home or at a bank? are you a signatory to it if it's at the bank? if it's at home, where is the key/what is the combination?

do they want to be cremated, buried, turned into a tree? do they want a memorial service or funeral? if buried, do they have plots already? if so, where?
posted by misanthropicsarah at 1:37 PM on February 1 [3 favorites]

(And I could be wrong about their net worth. It is only a best guess based on context clues.)

I’m saying this as someone who grew up in a family where my parents did not talk about the cost of anything, and certainly not about how much money they had, but you are going to want to find out concrete numbers here. People of a certain generation can be extremely, extremely clever at hiding financial issues. If one of your parents needs round-the-clock care at some point, it’s about 10k/month in my area. And at that point, you are going to have to work out a timeline of plans about what’s going to happen when the money runs out. Figure out your own boundaries now.

Set up a family trust for the money.

Find out what their plan is if their current living situation suddenly becomes unsustainable (stairs become unnavigable, ice prevents them from getting out, etc.) Do not be surprised if people who have used logic and reason all your life suddenly come up with bananas solutions like “I’ll just never come downstairs” or “we’ll get the neighbor’s daughter whom we’ve never met to move in.” (Emphasis mine.) People get scared and don’t want to think about situations like this.

Nursing homes often have waiting lists. Have they thought about the eventuality of one day moving into a facility with different levels of care so that they can stay in place as they age. (They are not going to want to hear this.)

Make sure all IDs stay up to date, even if they are not using a driver’s license at some point. You will need IDs for bank accounts and such.

Someone in the family should be a co-signatory on the bank accounts.

Nobody wants to talk about funerals but maybe you can get them to tell you what they would consider to be absolutely intolerable choices. Or sometimes you can present it as a way to help the grieving family in the future.
posted by corey flood at 1:47 PM on February 1 [3 favorites]

A friend of mine created this project: Dying Kindness, with templates and trainings and a podcast, about what needs doing now to be kinder to those we leave behind when we die. You may find a lot of useful and relevant info on her site.
posted by gingerbeer at 2:04 PM on February 1 [2 favorites]

The greatest gift my mother ever gave me was to sit down with a lawyer and go through all of this about 12 years before her incredibly recent death. It has made everything so much more simple and saved me so much anguish. One way to start to use the document provided by local hospice organization, which probably have worksheets for these questions to work systematically through, perhaps a little each visit. Ask them this as a gift to you. I also inherited a sibling so feel free to memail me about hire that all ends up going.
posted by Iteki at 3:44 PM on February 1 [2 favorites]

Don't forget to ask them about their plans for whatever digital/online footprint they have. Passwords to important accounts, wishes for social media accounts if they have any, wishes for email, wishes for whatever data's on their devices, stuff like that.
posted by humbug at 3:55 PM on February 1 [1 favorite]

One of the most important things is (in my own very personal experience) to make sure there are the relevant powers of attorney set up long before they're needed. As you are aware, a person's health can change in an instant and, if that happens and there isn't anyone that can make decisions on their behalf, everyone's life gets a lot worse very fast.

One of the key things is to set up Advance Care Planning for your parents. When my Mother died a year ago, this was such a useful thing to have because her wishes were very clear about what level of intervention could be applied in different circumstances. One thing that nobody tells you about these is it's critical that your parents discuss this with anyone named as being able to make decisions - my Mother originally had all her children nominated and one of my sisters said she would not agree to anything that would shorten her life under any circumstances, so she was removed from the Advanced Care Plan. While it's never easy to make decisions about someone else's end-of-life arrangements, we were able to simply follow her instructions and the doctors readily agreed to what she wanted. In her case, she wanted and was given as much pain medication as needed to keep her pain-free and nothing else.

The same applied to her funeral - she had planned it all out and set funds aside to pay for it. Unfortunately, she had not kept up-to-date on the cost of funerals and the cost of, particularly, burial has skyrocketed beyond belief. The cost of a burial alone was over three times the cost of what her whole funeral ended up being. We had to have her cremated rather than buried, which was against her wishes but we all believed she would never have requested that if she had any idea of the cost.

With any power of attorney-like arrangement, it's critical that these are put in place while your parents are unambiguously able to make legally binding decisions. A neighbour of mine ended up in a really difficult situation when his wife was diagnosed with dementia and there were no arrangements in place. Because of the formal diagnosis, it was too late to get them in place. The same applies to a will, obviously. The whole point of all these arrangements is to ensure your parents' wishes are honoured and making them clear and legally watertight is critical.

Couples often think there's no real need to worry about wills etc because everything will go to their spouse anyway and that person can make whatever decisions are needed. This is not true - not only do people come out of the woodwork to challenge that when the time comes (eating up everything with legal costs), but something like a car accident can easily render them both unable to make decisions, either temporarily or permanently.
posted by dg at 5:31 PM on February 1 [2 favorites]

However, I am aware that the health of an aging person can change in an instant.
Anyone's health can change in an instant (accidents happen), so yes, ask for the names of their professionals. You can say you're getting around to drawing up your own plans/paperwork, or that you need to know in case of an emergency.

Unlike money, they are completely comfortable discussing their health with me.
Ask if they have long-term care insurance.

I have an adult sibling who lives with them and it is unclear if my sibling is able to live independently.
Ask if there is a support plan (example: special needs trusts) in place for your sibling.
posted by Iris Gambol at 5:44 PM on February 1

Regarding the predicament dg and their family found themselves in: In Ontario, if you prearrange and pay for the funeral you want, the money goes in trust. If it earns more than the funeral costs, the estate is refunded the difference; if it costs more, there's no additional charge. I can't speak to any other jurisdictions, but it's worth investigating.
posted by kate4914 at 9:07 PM on February 1

"Low eight figures? In good health? With good relationships? You may well just be called in by their professionals when it is time to worry about this."

You would think. But, you never know. And if they've gone through all the work to make plans for how they want to live when they can't live independently any more, and find lawyers and financial advisors, and set up the necessary wills and trusts and POAs and medical POAs, etc., etc.--then they've almost certainly also heard multiple times that they need to share all this with family. So the fact that robot cat doesn't know these details yet is a bit concerning.

Definitely ask. If there is stuff that still needs to be taken care of, it's much easier to do while they're still in good health. And it's much better to get a head start learning how it all works now, rather than having to figure it all out suddenly while you're in the middle of grieving....
posted by bfields at 5:38 AM on February 2 [1 favorite]

You specifically want to talk to an estate / probate lawyer. They can help organize all of your parents assets and accounts and help all of you create a plan for handling long term care, medical power of attorney, and the estate (cash, investments, and property) itself. They can also draft living wills and designate an executor.

Your parents may be more comfortable discussing this with a professional, and it's a wonderful idea for peace of mind to get everyone on the same page now, before any challenges come up.
posted by ananci at 11:16 AM on February 2

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