When their children approach adolescence, many parents decide to sit down with them and have “the talk,” explaining (usually awkwardly) what used to be referred to as the facts of life. But as parents approach retirement, their adult kids often find themselves approaching mom and dad for a different kind of talk – a heart-to-heart chat about the facts of retirement life.
Just like that earlier chat from decades ago, the “retirement chat” can be equally awkward, and if handled poorly can create more confusion than it solves. But adult kids and parents still need to find ways to communicate about these vitally important topics. That’s one reason we’re referring our readers to this article from HuffPost in which reporter Monica Torres lists half a dozen things every caring adult needs to ask their aging parents.
We do have some issues with the tone of Torres’s list. Moreover, as Rajiv emphasizes at the end of the article, how and when you broach these often-sensitive topics makes all the difference.
Adult Kids Worry About Their Retiring Parents
Torres begins her HuffPost article by pointing out the startling statistic that a whopping 71 percent of baby boomers report feeling behind on saving for retirement, according to a 2022 survey. This discovery can be especially disturbing for the adult children of those boomers, who may feel unable to talk to their parents about their retirement plans.
Author Cameron Huddleston, who wrote a book on the subject, is adamant that these conversations are both time-sensitive and imperative. “These conversations need to happen sooner rather than later,” she says. “It gives you and your parents more time to plan. It gives them more options when it comes to saving for retirement, planning for long-term care. You don’t want to wait for emergencies, because then you have fewer options — sometimes no options at all.”
Nancy K. Schlossberg, retired psychology professor and author, emphasizes the importance of establishing a collaborative atmosphere around these conversations. “Older people don’t want their sovereignty taken away,” she says. “You have to be able to not take such a strong position — that ‘this is the way to do it, this isn’t.’ What you want as an adult child is to be helpful and find out what would be helpful.”
Torres provides the following conversation starters to make the topic easier to discuss. Let’s take a look.
Question #1: Ask About Hopes and Dreams
First tip: listen more than speak. Schlossberg suggests asking things like, “Do you want to talk about your expectations as you retire?” and “As you look ahead, what are you thinking about?”
Torres writes, “The role of a collaborator is to help your parents uncover options. That means withholding judgment about what your parents decide to share with you.”
For example, instead of taking an accusatory stance—like pointing out that the house is too much work for your parent as they age—try to focus on highlighting the benefits of different options and asking clarifying questions. Huddleston suggests, for the above example about the house, asking a question like, “Oh, you want to get care at home? Is your home set up for you to age in place?”
If your parents are not sure how they would spend their newfound free time, Schlossberg suggests partnering with them to explore their interests and do some research for them to find possibilities. And Torres adds, “This is also a time to exchange realistic expectations for how involved your parents want to be in your day-to-day life. For example, you might be expecting your parents to help out with caregiving for your children, and they may have totally different plans.”
Question #2: Broach the Money Issue
As awkward as it is, Torres says it’s vital that you ask if your parent has been saving for retirement, and have some options available if the answer is no, or not really.
“It’s never too late,” says David John, a senior strategic policy adviser at AARP. “But leaving it to the last moment can cost you in ways both financially and emotionally to discover that you had expected something and that you found that you really don’t have the resources to meet that goal.”
What’s the ideal savings amount? John says it varies. “The important level is, are you saving somewhere in the neighborhood of, say, 8-10 percent of your income into a retirement plan?” he says. Torres adds, “If that’s a huge adjustment, [John] suggested that people ease their way into it by starting with 3 percent to 4 percent and increasing that figure — for example, as a contribution to an employer-sponsored plan like a 401(k) or to an individual retirement account — by a percentage point each year. The IRS also offers catch-up contribution incentives that allow people ages 50 and up to contribute more to 401(k)s and IRAs.”
You may be surprised at your parents’ reaction to being asked about finances. Some may not want to talk about it at all, but some might be surprisingly receptive, especially if they’ve always wanted to have the conversation with you but didn’t know how to begin.
Ask Them for Financial Advice
If they tell you they’re completely fine, and you’re not convinced, you can see for yourself by asking them for some retirement-saving strategies. Huddleston says, “It avoids that role reversal, and parents like to offer advice. Then you come back later [and say] ‘Oh hey, thanks for sharing that advice with me. I did a little bit more research and I found this article that said you need to have this much in savings.’”
If your parents are open to collaboration with you on a budget, help them to make a map of what resources they have, their current wealth, savings, and debt. Then, make an estimation of how much they will be able to spend down from that savings and for how long in retirement.
Torres writes, “The bottom line is that financial education makes a big difference for how people retire. And if you can be a helpful resource for your parents, they could be better prepared for the road ahead.”
Question #3: Considering a Financial Planner
“Hiring a financial adviser is one way for your parents to get professional help on preparing for retirement,” Torres writes. “But even if an adviser is not an option for them, there are other ways to get assistance.”
For instance, some financial advisers charge by the hour, so your parents could get a meeting or two to come up with a plan and create a budget while not paying an arm and a leg. Torres notes, “The national Garrett Planning Network can help you search for financial advisers in your area who charge by the hour.”
But Huddleston also encourages contacting a local office of the Financial Planning Association, which has chapters in different states. She says, “Ask if they have any members who will do pro bono work or provide really discounted services to low-income families.” And if nothing else, there is always the option of online services, if in-person meetings are unavailable or not practical.
Question #4: Dive Deeper Into Finances
The next conversation starter is potentially contentious, but important: ask your parents if they need you to provide financial assistance, and determine what that looks like.
Torres writes, “Almost half of midlife adults expect to provide financial support to their parents in the future and are concerned about their ability to do so, according to a 2020 AARP survey. Getting clarity now on the assistance your parents need can help prevent headaches later on.”
For instance, your parents might need help paying for utilities, medical costs, housing, or any one of a number of other costs. They may not need help with all of it, but even one less monthly bill can be a huge relief.
Huddleston points out that adult children could “pool money for a general emergency fund”, or just choose to address one expense, “like monthly premium payments on a long-term care insurance policy.”
If you’re not able to help with what they need, Huddleston suggests telling them, “This is the help I can provide. I can point you to these resources, but I’m not going to help chip in for medical costs or stop working if you need hands-on care. By doing this in advance, when those emergencies arise … you are not going to be responding emotionally.”
Question #5: Make Sure They Understand Social Security
Next, ask if they are familiar with the Social Security benefit they expect to get.
Torres writes, “ In a 2022 survey of nearly 1,900 adults across generations, almost half incorrectly thought that if they filed early for Social Security, their benefit would automatically increase upon reaching full retirement age. To give parents a better idea of what to expect, encourage them to create an online Social Security account. They can then compare the monthly retirement benefits they would receive by applying at different times between the ages of 62 and 70.”
Huddleston adds, “You can say: ‘Hey, Social Security has this great resource. If you set up a ‘My Social Security’ account, it’s going to show you what your projected monthly benefits are.’”
Question #6: Talk About Long-Term Care
Finally, the article says, ask if they’ve thought about long-term care, and find out if they qualify for any options now.
Torres writes, “Nearly 7 in 10 adults who are 50-plus believe that they will need assistance with daily activities as they get older, yet fewer than 3 in 10 have thought ‘a lot’ about how they will then continue to live on their own, according to a 2022 AARP survey of 1,000 people.”
Huddleston goes on to explain that many adults incorrectly believe that Medicare covers all the costs of long-term care, whether in a nursing home or not. Not only is that not true, but it’s also a pricey misconception. “In 2021, the national median monthly cost for a private nursing home room was $9,034,” Torres writes.
Huddleston suggests connecting your parents with a specialized elder care lawyer to help them navigate what can be a complicated state-specific system. They can also explore options for veterans through the Department of Veteran Affairs or look into the finer points of life insurance policies, which can have riders that allow people to dip into their death benefits while they are alive.
In the conversation with your parents, be sure to arm yourself with resources like relevant articles, or even use examples of people you know who are dealing with the same issues. In the end, the most important thing is for these conversations to truly be that: conversations. You are showing your parents that you want to be a help, a resource, and support through a big life transition. This is a partnership, not an ambush.
“One of the best things a kid can do for their parents is to help them see options,” Schlossberg says. “The more options you see, the more you feel in control.”
Rajiv: How and When You Ask Makes a World of Difference
We asked Rajiv Nagaich of AgingOptions to take a look at this article, and while he agrees that parents and adult kids need to talk openly, he’s not in full agreement with everything the HuffPost article suggests. “My reaction to these six suggested questions is mixed,” Rajiv says. “For one thing, based on my experience, I think it’s totally naïve to think most parent will be open to an adult child who approaches them too directly with these sensitive questions. I know few parents who would respond graciously to this line of inquiry.”
But, as Rajiv quickly adds, timing makes a big difference. “There is a better way,” he suggests. “I recommend you wait to talk about these important details until your folks have enjoyed a few years of retirement. At that point the focus of the questions you ask should really have to do with what a son or daughter can do planning-wise to help mom or dad avoid ending up in a nursing home against their will. Handle it that way, and you as the child become an ally, not an accuser.”
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(originally reported at www.huffpost.com)