How to talk to your parents about aging and dealing with their “stuff”

One of the biggest questions we get around the holiday season is … “How do I talk to my parents about their stuff?”

And this question is then awkwardly followed by, “Look, I don’t really want or expect anything from my parents, but I just don’t know what to do if they get sick or … fall down when I’m not home and …. you know…” and the person then trails off. 

It’s hard to talk to your parents about them getting older and becoming more frail.

No one wants to talk about or admit that they’re getting older, that the steps are just a bit too much, that the kitchen pots are getting too heavy, and parents especially don’t want to become dependent on their kids. It’s like the ultimate role reversal and it’s humbling for them … and for us, their kids.

We never want to think about our parents being frail human beings. Your dad is the person you call when you have a flat tire (even when you’re married!) and your mom is the person you call when you need to take in a seam in your work pants (or let them out.)

You’ve always looked up to them and they are like your childhood heroes come to life – just with less spandex.

So, the idea of them needing help lifting a roasting pan out of the oven with a 15 pound turkey, or climbing a flight of stairs to do laundry seems unthinkable. But you see it every day when they stop halfway up the flight of stairs to catch their breath.

Talking to your parents is tough. They don’t want to admit that they’re aging and sometimes they are angry and react defensively by saying, “Oh, you just want to know when I’ll die so you get all my money.” They want to shut down the conversation because they don’t want to confront the reality of their aging or mortality. (No one does.)

Here are a few ways to start the discussion: 

  • Be direct. 

If you and your parents have a really good relationship, then just be frank and direct about it. Let them know that you’re becoming concerned and want to make sure that their wishes are followed and that there is a plan in place. 

Honor your good relationship with your parents by continuing to be direct and open with them about your concerns. 

  • Don’t make the discussion about money.

For many families, money is an “off-limits” discussion. (It shouldn’t be, but it is.) Instead of talking about money, talk about big-ticket topics. Ask about their plans for retirement, but keep the questions open and come from a place of curiosity and not a place of judgment. 

You can also use the, “You took such good care of me as a child, I appreciate everything that you did for me, and I want to make sure that I take good care of you in the future, if you ever need it.”

This way you can express appreciation, concern, and a willingness to open the discussion, but still leave them in control. 

  • Send an invitation.

Depending on the age of your parents, you could wow them by sending them a formal invitation to talk about their future. Since this is such an emotional topic, the written invitation will allow your parents to appreciate the gesture of the invitation, organize their thoughts, and participate constructively without an emotional outburst. 

Be sure that the invitation is an invitation and not a demand. It’s still your parents’ lives, and they’re in control.

  • Ask them for advice on creating your own plan.

This is kind of “reverse psychology” approach. Many people feel more comfortable offering advice than they do seeking it. Tell your parents that you are thinking about creating a plan for your finances, will, and family that will protect them if something happens to you and that you’d like your parents’ input. 

The goal is to get your parents to open up about their plan, to think about what they want to have happen, and what they need to get there. 

If you find out that they don’t have a will or a trust, you could suggest that you do that together as a family activity. 

  • Tell them your story about creating your plan.

If you’ve already created your will or trust, you could open the discussion by telling your parents what your planning process was like, the decisions that you made, and see if they have thoughts or any feedback. 

This is again going down the path of seeking advice and feedback, which will open up the channel for discussion. 

  • Use a major life event.

If you’ve have a friend or relative who recently went through a big life event, such as the birth of a child, marriage, or a death, or even a traumatic event such as a cancer diagnosis, you can take advantage of the event to open the discussion. 

You could start with something like, “Mom, I’ve been thinking about our neighbor, Susan and how she was just diagnosed with Stage III Cancer, do you know how she’s doing? How her family is doing?” 

Again, being open, genuine, and curious will get you further than any kind of judgment or demands. 

  • Ask “What If” questions

If your parents are open to the discussion, using “what if” questions helps you get to the heart of the matter quickly and less painfully. 

You can ask things like, “What happens if you’re in a car accident? What kinds of treatment do you want?” or “Do you want to be buried or cremated?”

For some people, it takes years to get their parents to really open up, and some parents never do. If your parents are the kind that won’t open up, you can gently remind them that if they don’t make decisions, or won’t tell you about their decisions, that you’ll be forced to make decisions for them that they might not like. (This is kind of a last resort option)

Above all, remember to be respectful, genuine, curious, and non-judgmental.