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How can I get my parents to open up about needing financial help?

As a clinician specializing in financial behavior, Amanda helps people live empowered, engaged, and educated financial lives.

Q: I hope you can help me find a way to talk to my father about his financial situation. Last month his electricity was turned off and my sisters and...

Q: I hope you can help me find a way to talk to my father about his financial situation. Last month his electricity was turned off and my sisters and I helped pay a past-due balance of several months. He says it was just carelessness and he didn't notice the bill was overdue, but my dad is very on top of things and I think he was just covering up for not having the money. Over the last couple years I've noticed a number of little things, like having less food in the house, that make me worry that he's financially stressed. He's very proud, and has worked hard all his life. He's made a lot of sacrifices to take care of my mom, my sisters and me. My sisters and I want to help but money is not something we've ever talked about in our family, and every time I try to bring it up it he says he's fine, and the whole thing feels very awkward. I love my dad so much, and I can't stand the idea of him struggling alone with this. How can I get him to open up to me?

A: It sounds like you have a close, loving family whose members care deeply about each other's well-being. I am glad your father has you and your sisters to notice when he might be struggling, and to work through his resistance to bringing it up.

You are not alone in your difficulty. Many of us are in the same situation with our aging parents, unsure of how to ask tough questions about money, physical capabilities and legal necessities like a health care proxy and durable power of attorney. I would recommend that all families have these conversations while everyone is in good health, before official retirement if possible and well before a parent's cognitive capabilities may start to diminish.

But if your father is already facing utility shutoffs and food insecurity then there is no more time to wait. Your gut sense of his vulnerability is undoubtedly correct, and you would do him a disservice to accept his excuses that he's fine.

Still, let's understand how hard this transition is for your father. He has been the strong caretaker his entire life, and he's showing you that he would rather go without food and have the lights shut off than admit he needs help. That's how powerful his need for autonomy is, and we want to respect his feelings, not get into a battle over who is "right" about whether or not he's able to manage.

So how can everyone work together to face this next chapter in your family's life?

Educate yourself

We are fortunate to have a number of resources available to seniors and their families. Look into programs through the Administration on Aging and services for the elderly in your community. Find out what benefits your father might be eligible for, even if you think he would not agree to them right now. For example, your dad might meet the eligibility requirements for supplemental nutrition (also known as food stamps) or home energy assistance programs but would be resistant to anything that felt like a "handout." That's okay. Your goal at this stage is not to present a plan, rather it's to educate yourself and collect information on all options. You should also consider what kind of help you are prepared to offer your father in terms of tasks or personal financial support.

Focus on family unity

Talk to your sisters about anything they might have noticed about your father's functioning or the way he's managing, and discuss everyone's thoughts and concerns. Share what you've learned in your research thus far. It's important that the siblings come to a consensus on what your dad might need and how you can help. Unfortunately, in many cases disagreement on this can split family members into opposing factions, where one or more siblings "side with Dad" and undermine the efforts of others to advocate for help. Try to iron out any differences, or at least come up with a plan for how to navigate them respectfully.

Photo credit: Dean Mitchell/iStock/360/Getty Images

Start a conversation

The first step in opening up the conversation with your father is to convey your love and support, and affirm his right to be in charge of his own life. No suggestion of change should be brought up in that first conversation. Simply say something like,
"Dad, we are a family. We wouldn’t want any member of this family to experience difficulty alone. We just want to know more about how you’re doing."

Take your time

Exploring change may be very difficult for your father, and you will need to proceed slowly. At times he may misinterpret your efforts to help as a judgment on his ability to manage. One of the best things you can do is provide him with the opportunity to process his thoughts and feelings and to consider his options. Let's go back to the food stamps example. He might know on one level that a supplemental nutrition program would be helpful, or that he might even need it, but he has to work through the shame he feels around applying for assistance. Show your openness to talk it through, look at alternatives, provide facts to challenge misconceptions (like how widespread food insecurity is among seniors, not just him) and try to avoid being the one to push for a particular solution. Whenever possible, let him come to the conclusion and make the decision for himself.

Prepare for the long haul

This is probably only the first time you and your sisters will need to work with your father around care and management of the next phase of his life. Use this opportunity to establish a framework of collaboration so your dad knows that you and your sisters are on his side, and that you hear and will respect his wishes. I would also suggest starting to think proactively about other issues related to aging, and work on putting other plans in place ahead of time.

Get lots of support for yourself here, too. Your father isn't the only one who is transitioning into a new role and a new phase in life. Protect your relationships with your sisters by recognizing that you are all there to help, and by offering each other the benefit of the doubt when disagreements arise. I wish you, your sisters and your father all the best.

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