Are Mom and Dad OK? Ways to check up on parents' financial health

Posted: Friday, October 11, 2002

NEW YORK (AP) -- As you've watched your savings accounts shrink, have you given any thought to how the 2-1/2 year market slide and depressed interest rates have affected your parents' retirement nest egg?

Are they in trouble or are they OK?

Just how do you broach the subject in a way that doesn't hurt their feelings or threaten their sense of independence?

Experts say that despite the likely discomfort on both sides, it's necessary for adult children to open lines of communication with elderly parents about money.

''Families don't talk about financial issues a lot in normal times and, of course, the worst circumstances to be starting a discussion are times of crisis,'' said Elinor Ginzler, manager for independent living at the AARP in Washington, D.C. ''But your goal has to be to make sure your mom and dad are taken care of financially.''

Ginzler points out that money is at the center of just about everything that has to do with your parents' well-being: ''You can't talk about housing without talking about finances. You can't talk about health care without talking about finances. You can't plan ahead without talking about finances.''

Lynn O'Shaughnessy, author of the ''Retirement Bible,'' suggests that one way to break the ice is for children to open up about their own financial concerns.

''It's very threatening if you say, 'Mom, have you lost all your money?''' she said. ''A better approach would be, 'I've taken a hit and I'm looking for ways to help my portfolio. Can we brainstorm?'''

O'Shaughnessy also said that elderly parents might be more comfortable sharing their problems with a professional financial planner than with a daughter or son or son-in-law. If they have accounts with companies like Vanguard or Fidelity or Schwab, they probably can see retirement specialists free or for a modest fee, she said.

''A professional can hold their hand, give them confidence and help them make decisions to ensure their money lasts,'' she said.

The AARP's Ginzler says children should watch for ''red flags'' indicating financial distress: Are your parents' bills piling up? Did they used to eat out four nights a week and now they're not going out at all? Is there less food in the house?

She suggests several possible approaches to opening a dialogue:

-- Start with a non-threatening topic, like a safety inspection of your parents' home to ensure railings are secure, the tub has nonstick mats, electrical cords are out of walkways. Then move on to financial issues.

-- Cite an outside source, as in ''Mom, I just read the most horrible article in a magazine about a couple that had been retired for 15 years and had to go back to work. ... It kept me up all night. ... Can we talk about this, because it would make me feel better.''

-- Work through a third party, perhaps a trusted uncle or an attorney or accountant who has had a long-term relationship with your parents.

Financial planner Robert J. Reby of Danbury, Conn., said he was seeing more multigenerational clients -- baby boomers who brought in their parents and their children.

He believes that many of today's elderly are in fairly decent financial shape because, having lived through the depression of the 1930s, they tend to be careful spenders and good savers.

''Despite today's financial turmoil, they're often not so much in trouble as in need of confidence building,'' Reby said.

He noted that in cases where parents are having financial difficulties, children can help out without doing something as obvious -- and potentially threatening -- as buying them groceries.

One possibility, for example, is to put your parents on your own health insurance plan.

Or suggest they start moving assets like their home into their children's names -- a potentially good move for estate-planning purposes as well as a way to let the children pay the property taxes and other bills.

And few would turn down a gift from their children of a Christmas trip to visit the grandchildren or an anniversary cruise.

Reby stressed that any steps must be sensitive to parents' feelings.

''Parents want to maintain their independence,'' he said. ''You hear it over and over, 'I don't want to be dependent on my children.'''


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