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When an older loved one is struggling financially: How to help and cope

If your loved one is having a tough time with their finances, these expert tips can help you manage the situation — and your stress.

When an older loved one is struggling financially: How to help and cope

While many adult children have given thought to physically caring for their parents or other close relatives as they age, most haven’t entertained the idea of undertaking their loved one’s financial stress — but the latter is more common than most think. 

“Many Boomers have either not saved or invested enough or have the bulk of their net worth tied up in their home,” says Tara Falcone, a certified financial planner and founder of the financial planning app, Reason. “And while home prices are at record levels, some older folks are not ready to sell their residence in order to use those funds for living expenses. Combined with significant price increases on staples like gas and food, many are wondering whether they will be able to afford even the most modest of lifestyles in retirement.”

Making matters worse: Money is an emotional issue. “It is particularly sensitive with a role reversal for senior parents and their adult children,” explains Iris Waichler, a licensed clinical social worker in Chicago and author of “Role Reversal: How to Take Care of Yourself and Your Aging Parents.” “Because of this, it’s important to have an open conversation with aging parents about what you can and can’t do.” 

Tricky? Yes. But not impossible. Here’s expert advice for how to emotionally support your aging loved ones if they’re struggling financially — and tips for keeping your sanity intact along the way.

Ways to be emotionally supportive when your aging parents are struggling financially

1. Be clear about what you can do from the start. 

The first thing you should do when the subject comes up, is be clear about what you’re able to handle, from both a physical and financial standpoint, according to Dr. Brenna Renn, a clinical geropsychologist and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. 

“Be very clear going into these conversations about your own boundaries and capacity for assistance,” Renn says, adding that, even with that being the case, don’t lead with what you can’t do. “Figure out ways you can help out, be it with transportation or grocery shopping and be clear up front about how you can assist. Just don’t make ambiguous comments, such as ‘let me see what I can do.’”

“Be very clear going into these conversations about your own boundaries and capacity for assistance.”

— DR. BRENNA RENN, CLINICAL GEROPSYCHOLOGIST

And ideally, you should know your capabilities — of yourself, within your family and financially — before the subject ever comes up (more on the importance of this in a bit). If you find yourself caught off guard by the topic, Renn suggests simply saying: “I hear what you’re saying; that sounds really hard. I need to take a step back to see what I can do.” This way, you’re not creating false hope.  

Check out: Debt forgiveness for seniors: 5 strategies to consider

2. Consider context. 

If your parent asks you for money or hints about financial trouble seemingly out of nowhere, Renn recommends considering the following:

  • Is this a one-time need or ongoing? For instance, was there a car accident and your parent needs $10,000 to buy another vehicle? Or has there been a sudden change that will have ongoing financial consequences, such as the loss of a job or a divorce?
  • Is this an unusual request or is it characteristic of your parent? Maybe it’s that there is always a crisis that needs to be resolved. 
  • Has there been a change in their health status, such as a chronic disease or cognitive impairment? “This could make the caregiving relationship more complex but may also open up the opportunity to seek additional resources,” Renn says. 
  • Are there other factors at play? For example, substance use, mental health issues, gambling, etc.

“Depending on the answer to these questions,” says Renn, “adult children may have a different capacity and different feelings about how they can help.” 

3. Offer “instrumental support.” 

Instrumental — or practical — support is a great way for adult children to give back to their parents, without dipping into their own funds. Here are a few ways you can offer this type of support, according to Renn and Falcone:

  • Transportation. 
  • Assistance in finding a case manager or community resources. 
  • Helping fill out paperwork or applications. 
  • Appointment accompaniment. 
  • Assistance in finding a financial planner who is well-versed in aging and retirement planning strategies.
  • Setting up online billing for them. 

4. Pick the right time. 

If you’re the one who’s starting the conversation, make sure the timing’s right and “broach the stress points gently,” according to Kendra Stevens, senior vice president of sales at Atria Senior Living. “No one likes a difficult discussion they aren’t prepared for; it can put people on the defensive.” Stevens suggests “looking for a natural opening” to bring up the subject. “However, polite perseverance is key,” she adds. “The sooner you begin discussing what the future could look like, the better it will be.”

“No one likes a difficult discussion they aren’t prepared for; it can put people on the defensive.”

— KENDRA STEVENS, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT OF SALES AT ATRIA SENIOR LIVING

5. Familiarize yourself with their finances. 

The unknown is always scarier, so Waichler suggests familiarizing yourself with their finances and benefits. 

“Try to understand their insurance coverage like Medicare/Medicaid, monthly expenses, possible future expenses and monthly income like Social Security or retirement funds,” Waichler says, adding that, if they’re willing, have yourself designated as an executor of their estate so you “have access to their financial records and information on their assets.” 

Falcone also suggests helping parents map everything out on a spreadsheet or on a whiteboard, as “seeing it all laid out in one place reduces the stress of mental accounting.”

Once you get a realistic sense of their expenses and assets, you can help figure out any gaps or potential problem areas, Waichler says.

6. Discuss estate planning. 

Falcone notes that, if they don’t have a will and trust already, adult children should help their parents set one up. (An easy online service is Trust and Will.) “In that process, it’s critical for children and parents to be transparent about any expectations they have of the other party,” Falcone explains. “For example, many parents put undue pressure on themselves to leave some kind of inheritance for their children when those children don’t actually expect or need to receive something from their parents’ estate.”

7. Consider having them move in. 

If financial difficulties are leading to housing instability or insecurity for your parent, consider having them move in; though, as Renn notes, “this is definitely not the right answer for everyone.”

“If you are considering this, think about if your parent can offer child care, cooking or other assistance — in a sense, bartering services for free or reduced rent,” Renn says. “However, people should take stock of their relationship with their parent(s) before offering such a live-in arrangement and articulate whether such an arrangement has a definitive timeline versus a permanent set-up.”

“People should take stock of their relationship with their parent(s) before offering a live-in arrangement.”

— DR. BRENNA RENN

Renn also notes that every county has an Area Agency on Aging (AAA), which is either public or non-profit. “Getting in touch with AAA will provide you with information and assistance on things like transportation, case management, respite, legal assistance and even housing.”

8. Offer validation.

No matter what route you take, make sure you validate your parent and what they’re going through. “Validation recognizes and affirms that a person’s feelings and opinions are worthwhile and valid,” explains Alicea Ardito, a licensed clinical social worker in Reston, Virginia, who specializes in eldercare and issues surrounding aging. “Say something like: ‘You’re right, it is very hard to live on a fixed income’ or ‘I would be angry about my rent going up, too.’” 

“Listening to your parent and letting them express their feelings can be empowering for the parent and for you,” Stevens adds. “Giving your parent the respect of being heard will build their trust and can relieve the sense of humiliation they may have about discussing finances with you.”

How to manage your own stress when your aging loved one is struggling financially

Dealing with a parent who’s under financial strain can be stressful for you, too. Here’s how to take care of yourself:

1. Figure out what you’re able (and not able) to do before it ever comes up. 

A good way to combat stress on the front end is to figure out what you’re willing — and not willing — to do prior to the conversation. “Usually there’s a difference in what we want to and what we can do,” says Renn. “So before you even talk, plan out what’s manageable for you and your family. This way, you won’t lose your footing with high emotions and guilt during the conversation.”

2. Set boundaries. 

Setting boundaries is key when dealing with aging parents, and doing so involves “using assertive communication to establish rules and limits within the relationship,” according to Ardito. “Assertive communication means that you are clearly and concisely expressing your thoughts and feelings calmly and without attacking or blaming the other person.” 

“Assertive communication means that you are clearly and concisely expressing your thoughts and feelings calmly and without attacking or blaming the other person.”

— ALICEA ARDITO, LICENSED CLINICAL SOCIAL WORKER

Ardito notes that it’s helpful to plan out the message you’d like to convey ahead of time, so you’re not caught off-guard. An example: “I understand that you are feeling stressed about your finances, I am happy to listen, and I can help you to look for a financial planner who may be able to help. I cannot pay your outstanding medical bill.” 

If your aging loved one tries to communicate with you frequently — i.e. they text you numerous times throughout the day — set a boundary around that, too. “If replying to your parent’s text messages at work stresses you out, figure out a number that works for you,” Renn says. “Can you check in twice a week instead?”

3. Name the problem.

Renn recommends “naming the problem” when you’re feeling stressed about your parent’s financial stress. “Get clear about what the ‘problem’ or ‘ask’ of you really is,” says Renn. “Is it navigating your relationship with your parent? Medical issues? Having them move in with you? Try to find out the specific issue that’s bothering you.” 

Doing this will not only help alleviate some of the emotional burden, it may help you figure out an answer. And when there’s not an easy answer, Renn notes that it’s important to hold space for yourself and acknowledge just that. 

4. Monitor your feelings.

Stevens notes that adult children should “carefully monitor feelings on a regular if not daily basis” when dealing with caregiving stress.

“The better you take care of yourself, the better you can take care of everyone else,” she says. “Sometimes self-care is as simple as getting a full eight hours of sleep a night or taking time to prepare a healthy meal at home. If you function better when you hit the gym regularly or meet a friend for coffee once a week, don’t let go of that. Determine your non-negotiable needs, and make sure they are met. You matter, too, and you’ll be a better parent and caregiver if you pace yourself.”

5. Make sure you’re not being a “fixer.”

According to Ardito, adult kids and family caregivers should check in with their reactions to evaluate “whether their involvement in their parent’s financial woes is appropriate or whether they are taking on the role of ‘fixer.’” 

Ardito explains that  a “fixer” might want to find a solution to a problem, or they might take on the responsibility of another person’s emotions. “Feeling responsible for an aging parent’s emotions is an indicator that there is an unhealthy pattern in the relationship, because it is not up to a child, even an adult child, to manage a parent’s emotions,” she points out. 

6. Show yourself compassion.

You can’t do it all, and that’s OK. “Acknowledge that sometimes there will not be an even balance,” Stevens says. “Some weeks you will focus more on your spouse and children or your career, others on your aging parent. Prioritize to the best of your ability, trust yourself to make good decisions and forgive yourself when you can’t do it all.”

7. Speak to a professional. 

Renn notes that if your parent’s financial stress is starting to bleed into your own well-being or your family life, it’s smart to speak to a professional — even if it’s short-term.   

The mental health directory FindTreatment.gov offers a database of sliding scale, or no-cost, therapists, while Open Path Psychotherapy Collective lists therapists with sliding scales from $30-80. Your local AAA can also provide information on caregiving services and groups. 

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