Talk to your parents now: An AARP study found that most people are comfortable discussing their health and finances when they feel well.

Talk to your parents now: An AARP study found that most people are comfortable discussing their health and finances when they feel well.(ISTOCKPHOTO)

Few of us like talking about money or death, so its no surprise your parents aren't jumping at the chance to discuss these topics with you. "But without some real understanding of each other's positions, needs, and wants, you can't come to sensible decisions about these issues," says Mark Edinberg, PhD, the author of Talking With Your Aging Parents and a psychologist in private practice who specializes in intergenerational communication. Worse, not talking about the issues now can result in misunderstandings and heartache later. Here are some strategies for talking with your aging parents.

Talk early and often. Dont wait until a moment of crisis to start having these conversations. Otherwise, "you're having them under the worst set of circumstances possible," says Elinor Ginzler, the coauthor of Caring for Your Aging Parents and the senior vice president of livable communities at AARP, the Washington, D.C.–based membership organization for older Americans. In fact, an AARP survey found that a majority of parents are more comfortable talking about such issues when things are going well. Aim to have multiple conversations on these topics over many years.

Tip: Be indirect. "A good way to defuse the personal element is to say, 'I have a friend who...,' 'I read an article about...,' 'I'm concerned that...,'" suggests Sanford J. Mall, a certified elder law attorney with Mall Malisow & Cooney in Farmington Hills, Mich. "Even if that initial approach is put off, at least the seed is planted."

[ pagebreak ]Don't go it alone. Involve your siblings and other relatives, Ginzler suggests. You'll need to draw on your family dynamics in order to manage the situation. For instance, designate the right person to initiate these difficult conversations. Is one of your siblings a real comedian who puts everyone at ease? Does an aunt have just the right touch to handle volatile situations? And dont forget to talk to each other—you can avoid a lot of strife if you have outlined your own expectations and capacity, financially and emotionally, to help your parents.

Tip: One way to get the conversation going is to get all family members, including the young and healthy, to draft and sign advanced care directives, which allow another person to make health decisions in the event of incapacity. This way, you can begin a family discussion about what everyone's wishes are for their end-of-life care without singling out your aging parents. You may be able to obtain sample documents from your state bar association, or you can have an estate attorney draft one for you.

Dont force the issue. If your parents adamantly refuse to talk about a subject, let it go and try another time. Or compromise: For instance, if they are uncomfortable laying their entire financial life in front of you, ask them only to give you a rough outline. Where are accounts held? Is there a will? Who is the executor? Is there a life insurance policy? Who is the beneficiary?

Tip: Edinberg suggests that at the very least, you should convince your parents to make a list of all their financial assets—the institutions where they're held and the account numbers—and keep it in designated spot. That way, children will know where to locate these documents if the need arises.

Be respectful. There might, of course, come a time when parents' decision-making skills become impaired. Even then, don't deprive them of self-determination, experts say. "We do not like the term 'parenting your parent,'" Ginzler says. "You will always be the adult child to your father or mother, even if that relationship changes." Find ways to address your concerns, such as your parents' safety and comfort in their present living situation, without being disrespectful. For example, don't simply declare that your parents must move out of their home. Work together to try to come up with a solution. Perhaps the answer is hiring a home health aide or making modifications to the home. "It is important to be realistically reassuring to your parent that they can have as much good functioning independence as possible," Edinberg says.