Recently a reporter asked ElderLawAnswers founder and president, Harry S. Margolis, some questions for an article on talking with aging parents or other family members about sensitive issues such as wills, funeral arrangements, assisted living or medical treatment wishes. Here are the reporter’s questions and Harry’s answers.
1. At what point is it appropriate for grown children, spouses, caregivers or friends to attempt to discuss these issues with aging parents, relatives or friends?
The earlier the better, but every family is different, and raising these issues can be more or less uncomfortable depending on the family dynamics. Certainly, if there is an illness or medical emergency, that can serve as justification for beginning the discussion.
2. What’s the best way to broach the subject?
Rather than focusing on the parent or other family member’s current or possible future physical and mental decline, it often works better for the person starting the conversation to focus on his or her own concerns. She can say that she was meeting with her own estate planning attorney, which made her think about her parents situation. Or she can talk about how she is nervous about being able to care for her parents when and if the need comes up. Often parents won’t take measures to protect themselves, but they never stop being parents and will respond to a call for help from a child.
3. Where’s the best place to have such a discussion?
In the parent’s home.
4. Should you seek legal counsel first before initiating a talk?
Not necessarily. A legal consultation would help the children or other family members know what issues to discuss and some of the available options. But the ultimate goal should be for the elder to consult himself or herself with an attorney with elder law experience.
5. Should it be one-on-one or should family members, friends or those with specific expertise in an area be part of the discussion?
That has to be determined on a case-by-case basis. We always encourage transparency so that all family members are in the loop. However, scheduling can be difficult and too many people involved can be overwhelming. In addition, depending on the circumstances, elder care and planning issues can take several meetings to resolve. Different people may be involved in different meetings depending on the issues being discussed at each.
6. What if your parent, spouse, etc., refuses to talk about these issues? How do you overcome this?
Follow the advice above. If it’s a parent, the child may have to be patient and wait until an opportunity arises to bring the subject up again. Ultimately, it may be impossible to get the parent to participate in any planning. If it’s a spouse, this is also true. However, a spouse may be able to take some planning steps on his or her own.
7. What steps can you legally take to prevent an elderly person from driving if they refuse to hand over their license or keys?
This depends on the state. In some states there are provisions for letting the registry of motor vehicles know of problem drivers. Where family pressure doesn’t stop a senior from driving and dementia exists, some of our clients have been successful in disabling vehicles if the senior does not have the capacity to get it fixed. (For more information on aging drivers and the law, click here.)
8. What steps can you legally take if an elderly person such as a parent or spouse refuses to take care of issues dealing with a will, housing, medical treatment or related areas?
It depends on the parent or spouse’s mental capacity. If they are incompetent, it is possible to go to court to be appointed conservator or guardian and to take over decisionmaking in these areas. Unfortunately, this can be an expensive, time-consuming and cumbersome process. (For more on guardianship and conservatorship, click here.)
9. What can seniors do in advance, to avoid becoming embroiled with grown children, relatives, or friends over these issues.
Plan ahead. All seniors should sit down with an elder law attorney to discuss their goals, concerns and hopes and to develop a plan to reach the goals, address the concerns and give their hopes the opportunity to become realities.
For more on having “the talk” with aging parents, click here.