Talk to relatives about caregiving before they need it; resources that can help

By Michelle Singletary
Thursday, June 3, 2010

Before my grandfather died of cancer, I helped my grandmother care for him in their home. For more than a decade, I managed health care and other financial issues for my disabled brother until his death. I also assisted with some of my grandmother's financial affairs in the years leading up to her passing. I'm currently the trustee for an older aunt.

With this experience, you would think it would be easy to talk to yet another adult about his care. But it's often not easy to get someone who has been living independently to open up, especially about finances.

Gathering the information my husband and I need to care for my father-in-law has been difficult. He is fiercely frugal and private. Everything we mention that he needs -- a wheelchair or assistance with his daily living -- is met with resistance because of the cost. He keeps coming back to two things: He's worried about outliving his money, and he wants to leave an inheritance to his grandchildren.

I certainly understand the first concern. The second point is a wonderful gesture, but we need him to use his money now for his care.

To help with having the all-important conversation about my father-in-law's care and finances, I turned to a professional to get some tips on effectively having the talk.

"We start saving for our kids to go to college years in advance but don't talk to our parents until it's too late to make good decisions," says Rosemarie Rae, executive vice president of strategy for Volunteers of America. She is running the nonprofit organization's "Aging With Options" initiative.

Rae and other professionals urge that you start talking well in advance of when you think you need to start caregiving, when your loved ones are still in good health.

Wait too long and it's hard for your mom and dad to acknowledge their diminishing cognitive abilities or their failing health. Say nothing and it becomes more of a struggle by the time you notice your dad's deteriorating memory or that your mom's house is a mess because she can't clean it like she used to.

So where do you start?

"A great way is by letting your aging parents or relatives know that you want to support them, that they can count on you, but in return they have to help you prepare," Rae says.

I like that conversational strategy. If they expect you to help -- and you should -- they need to make things easier by opening up. Here's a list Rae came up with. It is by no means all-inclusive but will help you get started:

-- Talk about the need for advance directives -- a living will and medical power of attorney. These legal documents will allow an aging parent to designate someone to make health-care decisions and convey end-of-life wishes. Check this Web site for more information:

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