The Mamas and the Papas: Will Your Parents Become a Burden or a Boon?
No one relishes the thought of watching their parents age, or those final days of their lives in which tough emotional, mental, and financial decisions have to be made. But there is a huge misunderstanding when it comes to the financial wherewithal of moms and dads all across the US: most Millennial and Gen X children are fearful their parents don’t have enough to retire on, enough to live on if they need to be placed in assisted care, or even enough to pay for their funeral or hospice care if needed. The (albeit morbid) good news is that by and large, moms and dads across the US do have enough to retire on, and enough to get the basics handled in the event of a sudden death or even a lengthier progression into old age.
So why does everyone seem so on edge when it comes to this aspect of financial wellbeing? Because not unlike how mom and dad did not exactly show us their paycheck stubs when we were high school kids or college students, they are also not showing us what they have on deck in terms of financial planning for their golden years, what kind of coverage (if any) they have for an accident, or in the event of a chronic disease that leaves them bedbound or terminally ill. Roles are reversing—and just as bulletproof teenagers once lobbed comments like, “Don’t worry about me” across the dinner table, these now-grown children of aging parents are getting served right back.
But while you obviously don’t want to skirt around the issue until the day your dad slips and falls in the garage or your mom decides to give you some unfortunate news about her health, you also don’t want to corner them about their health. The best idea is to calmly schedule a time to talk with them about their plan—not unlike that uncomfortable birds and bees talk they scheduled for you so many years ago. Having a screaming match will do no one any good, and the goal is to walk away with more information with as few verbal scrimmages as possible. Chances are, in many cases, the adult children with families of their own to take care of will be pleasantly surprised to find their parents have planned—or at least if they have not, there’s more there in terms of actual dollars than most adult children of aging parents think.
In fact, adult children underestimated their parents’ savings for retirement and old age by over a quarter of a million dollars according to a 2014 study conducted by Fidelity Investments. So with the primary nail-biting issue of mom and dad’s financial stability now in check, what’s the big deal? Shifts in demography, including how many children a couple has and the fact that more women than ever are the primary breadwinners in their homes mean that the old standby logic of “the eldest daughter” taking care of parents is no longer the norm. Who should take care of aging parents? These are all decisions for each family to decide for itself, but the logical thing to do is to place the responsibility on the person who has the least financial obligation and the most free time to care for senior parents—regardless of the gender of the adult child.
Personal finance issues are just that: personal. But they become communal issues when the sacrifices that have to be made due to poor planning (or no planning) fall to the shoulders of the next generation, which more often than not finds itself sandwiched between the needs of aging parents and their own growing children. Just as with physical health, prevention is better than cure, and in this sense, parents will do a great service to their children not just to save up for old age, but to have a common sense conversation about exactly where the cards will fall after their retirement, if there is an illness or accident, and after their passing. Avoiding uncomfortable conversations doesn’t make the need to have them go away—discussing your financials with your children before something happens is a smart choice and allows them to prepare financially—because preparing emotionally and mentally is hard enough.