July is the month we celebrate independence. As we age, living life on our own terms takes on greater significance. Yet while everyone wants to be independent, the reality is, if you do not plan for it the price of independence becomes too steep for all involved. It is often adult children that are left with a HUGE mess.

Consider this scenario. Mom and Dad retire and move to a 55+ community. Their son, an only child, lives 2,000 miles away in another state. They believe they have made the necessary arrangements to allow them to comfortably age in place. They live in a single-story home. Their estate documents are up to date with a will, powers of attorney and advanced directives. They maintain a large savings account. In their mind, the planning is done. They are prepared to stay living independently in their home indefinitely.

Now consider that Dad is a life-long diabetic and Mom has been his primary caretaker. When Dad was low on sugar, Mom gave him a hard candy to bring him back. She made him healthy meals and planned his medical care. But then Mom started to decline cognitively. She became unable to take care of Dad and their roles reversed. Dad became the caretaker for both himself and for Mom. A role he had never played.

You know where this is going. The house falls into disarray. They begin eating a lot of salty take-out, further exacerbating his medical condition. Dad simply could not care for Mom or himself.

Son comes to visit, sees the mess firsthand and offers to help. He explores bringing care into the house. Dad, feeling his independence is at risk, refuses to engage in this conversation and Mom (and Dad) continue to decline.

The argument continues until a major crisis occurs where Dad requires skilled nursing. The son is forced to make decisions for both Mom and Dad that neither had intended or are happy about.

Why do families get to this point? Parents do not want to be a burden on their children. But stories like this one are far too common. They happen because these parents do not want to face the reality of their own decline or properly plan to relinquish responsibilities to enable themselves to safely age in place. The irony is that by not making these plans they not only leave a costly mess for their kids, but they have gotten themselves into the situation they were trying to avoid – having someone else make decisions for them.

Preventing a scenario where you are pitted between parents refusing to relinquish their independence and their safety requires courage, compassion, commitment, and communication. Planning on when to relinquish responsibilities allows the older adult to be the decision maker and be independent longer.

As long as your parents have legal capacity, they are entitled to make bad decisions. It is difficult to watch a parent make a bad decision knowing there will not be a good result, especially if you are the person that will have to clean up the mess.

However, you can save yourself and your family headaches and heartache if, before the situation becomes untenable, you include yourself in the planning. Here are some tips for having this difficult conversation:

  • Start Early – Start Small. Before you recognize that your parent’s living situation is deteriorating is THE time to act. This is where courage and compassion come in. It is not uncommon for parents to be defensive about their decline. It is incumbent upon you to start the conversation gently and seek to implement a transition over time to avoid a drastic change in circumstances.
  • Make the discussion about you, not them. Explain how an unexpected decline would impact you and your family. If you live miles away, talk about your inability to take off work in order to be available at a moment’s notice. The cost of last-minute travel. Assure them that you want to have a plan in place that includes a scenario that is acceptable to them and will allow them to maintain a sense of purpose.
  • Enlist experts. Offer to sit in on meetings with your parent’s advisors and medical professionals. Having a broad understanding of the state of their health and finances can give you a clearer picture of what may be coming and can help drive further decision making. Joint conversations also signal to your parent’s advisory community that you are engaged and serious about acting in their best interest.
  • Provide options. Keep in mind there is no one-size-fits-all scenario. Plans may have to change given the nature and severity of the situation. Maybe it’s as easy as hiring someone to cook, clean and handle monthly bill payment. There may be options that allow your parents to stay in their home with an in-home caregiver. Outlining options so you are prepared to transition their living situation over time can lessen the fear and impact of the loss of independence.

These conversations are rarely easy, but they are necessary to avoid a calamity from causing an emergency domino effect. Keep in mind that your first discussion won’t be your last. You’ll need to constantly monitor the situation – even from afar. That is why enlisting the help of trusted advisors can give you peace of mind. Working with service providers like Life Managers & Associates, who are in regular contact with your parents, can more quickly alert you to an impending problem. We have the experience to recognize the signs of decline and the resources to help you and your parents navigate the aging in place continuum. Contact us if you’d like to learn more.