In many ways, I have been blessed with parents who have aged well. They both celebrated their 90th birthdays this fall and until recently have been living active and independent lives.
But the time of real cognitive and physical decline is finally breaking upon them. My father was recently in a bad accident and spent over six weeks in the hospital, and his physical and mental health have taken a sharp downturn. He struggles to walk any distance, and incontinence has hit him hard. Conversations with him, once easy and full of wit and humor, are now labored.
Details and words escape him, and he struggles with day-to-day financial and personal affairs. My mother is still sharp and healthy, but she has never paid the bills or tracked finances, so she has not been able to fill the void.
So, our family has rallied around them and put into place guard rails and checks and balances to assist them and to help them maintain a degree of independence and financial security. My father still pays the bills — it is a task he enjoys and gives him some purpose — but it can easily go wrong with online banking user names forgotten or bills paid twice or not at all.
I have online access to his bank and bill pay service, and I monitor the flow of funds to make sure they are paying key services. (I have a list I check against.) I also make sure they have enough funds to cover payments and that no strange amounts are suddenly flowing out. My sister, who lives close to my parents, has taken the lead in making sure she has a relationship with their doctors and has taken part in meetings where care and next steps are discussed. She can then follow up to make sure care is being delivered and followed through on.
We have made sure all of their estate-planning documents are up to date: this includes not only the will and trust but also health care powers of attorney, financial powers of attorney, and advanced medical directives; and it is a good idea to keep them all in a secure but accessible place such as Dropbox or Everplans.
We have, as a family, talked about plans for the next steps in care, assisted living, and the limitations of their own finances and some of the compromises they will have to make. We have even talked about funeral arrangements and end-of-life matters. The more you plan now for these things, the easier they are to handle when the end-of-life arrives.
Lastly, I urge family members to have checks and balances in place. Just do not give one family member access to checking accounts without oversight. For example, I make sure my sister and I go over my parents’ checking and investment accounts from time to time, so she knows what is going on (and that I am not helping myself to their money).
I do not want her to be surprised or shocked at how things are being managed and for her to have a clear sense of where their financial resources stand. I stay in touch with my parents’ close personal friends to get their take on how they see things progressing (my parents tend to tell me everything is fine). As a complement to this, you can also build a strong network of trusted advisors such as estate planning attorneys, CPAs, and financial advisors. Make sure they are willing to talk with adult children and are fully transparent with their guidance and advice.
Every family is different, and there are always dynamics in play that have likely lasted for decades. Parents can have challenging personalities, siblings can fight (or just not care), and tensions can flare on any number of fronts. The key is to build a network of support where trusted advice and oversight can be given as needed. Key documents need to be updated and kept in an easily accessible place. The more thought and care that is given when things are manageable, the more likely this transition to dependence and personal decline is made manageable.