The Conversation You Need To Have With Your Parents

End-of-life issues aren't easy to talk about. Here's how to broach the topic.

Losing a parent feels insurmountable at any age. Our series helps you face it ― from the practical logistics to the existential questions about death and dying today.

Americans tend to be pretty abysmal at end-of-life care planning. According to one estimate, only about 36% of adults in this country have any kind of advance directive (more on what that actually means below).

But it’s vital planning to do, and these are essential conversations to have — particularly with your parents. There isn’t a clear benchmark for when these talks should happen, but eldercare expert Joy Loverde, author of “Who Will Take Care of Me When I’m Old,” says if you’ve personally thought about things like life insurance and wills, your parents are certainly at an age when you should be talking to them about their own plans. “The ideal time is when your parents are mentally competent and can make their own choices and decisions,” she said. “The worst time is when there is a crisis.”

Of course, these can be pretty heavy topics to raise, and there’s a lot to consider beyond the obvious. Here are some expert-backed ideas for how to broach end-of-life care with your parents, and a (by no means exhaustive) guide to the big topics you should absolutely bring up.

Start By Asking About A Will And Power Of Attorney

If there’s one thing people tend to associate with end-of-life planning, it’s a will and for good reason: It’s the legal document that basically determines what happens to all of your assets after you die.

But you should also ask your parents about whether they’ve designated a power of attorney, meaning a person who’s been empowered to make legal and financial decisions if they can’t.

Wills and power of attorney documents are typically drawn up by a lawyer, so be sure to ask not only if they exist, but also how you can access them should you ever need to. Learn from Loverde, who broached this topic with her mom and stepdad who reassured her they had both set up their plans. “Bill [my stepdad] pipes up and says, ‘Oh yeah, it’s all in the green metal box,’” Loverde recalled. But after he had a stroke and was unable to speak, she checked the box and found it was empty. For whatever reason, he hadn’t been truthful with her.

“If you’re going to ask them for the documents, take the extra step and ask them for proof of the documents, or ask them who has them,” Loverde urged.

Ask About End-of-life Medical Care

What you want to know is whether your parents have any advance health care directives that provide guidance on how they want to be cared for if they’re, say, terminally ill or affected by dementia. That could include a living will, which can cover things like a person’s desires when it comes to medical ventilation, end-of-life pain management and organ donation. There’s also medical power of attorney (it goes by different names, depending on where you live), which is a type of advance directive that again designates a particular person to make those decisions for your parents if they’re unable to.

All of this just takes the pressure off people to guess when they’re in an incredibly intense moment in their lives.

“Families can end up fighting, there’s a lot of emotion that happens. One child thinks, ‘Oh, keep him alive at all costs.’ The other thinks, ‘No, he wouldn’t want that.’ And these become rifts that can last forever,” said Gene Newman, editorial director of Everplans, which helps people organize documents and map out their end-of-life plans. “It can last generations.”

Ask About Insurance

First, you want to ask about whether your parents have life insurance and maybe also have a basic sense of their policy, if for no other reason than billions of dollars of life insurance have gone unclaimed in the United States. Life insurers don’t necessarily have to proactively reach out and determine if the person they’ve insured is still alive.

You also want to ask about things like long-term care insurance or funeral insurance, just to make sure you’re never in a position where your loved ones have paid for a policy or policies that go unused simply because no one knew about them.

Get To Know The Basics Of Their Digital Life

The key here is to make it clear that you’re not looking to destroy anyone’s sense of privacy. And you do not necessarily need to have access to every single device, or every single account. But you want to know basics, like, who do they bank with? Do they do that online? And how could you begin to unwind their digital life if you needed to?

“Do you have the unlock codes for their phones and their computers? So much today is set up on two-factor authentication, so you can’t get into their devices, and you’re going to be shut out of their digital life,” said Abby Schneiderman, co-founder of Everplans. Offering you some basic info that could help you “unwind” their digital life if necessary is a huge gift, she says.

This might be a good time to talk to your parents about a password manager, which stores passwords and allows you to designate someone who can manage their account should something happen.

Don’t Forget The “Soft” Stuff

While there are a lot of financial and medical logistics to tackle, you also want to talk to your parents about how they’re organizing things that have emotional value, so you don’t lose things you’d be devastated to let go.

“Are there things around the house that parents have a sentimental connection to that they want to make sure get passed down to one person in the family? Are there any letters or videos or photos they want to make sure don’t get lost?” said Schneiderman. “And then things like recipes.”

Is there a family dish you adore that only your mom or dad knows or has access to, with the notes and annotations from your grandma that really makes it sing? Ask for it now.

When You’re Ready To Talk, Make It About You, Not Them

First of all, the experts say you shouldn’t assume that end-of-life conversations will be tough or awkward. A lot of parents welcome the opportunity to discuss these important logistics with their families, particularly those who’ve seen firsthand how challenging things can be if there are no plans in place ahead of time.

But if you’re nervous, which is understandable, Loverde recommends you simply start out by making it about you.

“You could say something like, I’ve been thinking about this for me and I took it upon myself to make some plans. Can we sit down and I can tell you about what I decided to do?” she said. “Then you tell them, here’s the lawyer, here’s the money. Just in case anything happens, I don’t want you to be left in the dark.”

Not only is that important for parents to know about their own kids (and bonus, it forces you to get your own affairs in order), it also opens up the door for parents to share their own plans.

Just be sure, Loverde says, to not bring this up around holidays or big family events, although those might seem like natural times. There’s so much going on, and those big events are so often already emotionally fraught.

Then Be Ready To Help

Getting all of this information together is a significant undertaking—and estate planning certainly requires more than ever before, just because of our significant digital footprints. It’s possible that your parents may have thought about some of this, but not necessarily every piece of the puzzle.

“One of the things adult children forget to do is have answers in case parents are totally open to having this conversation,” Loverde said. “If they open the door and ask a question and say ‘I don’t know’ you may not get another opportunity. Do your homework, and have some idea of what you’re talking about.”

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