How to Communicate with Aging Parents about Money

Older adults have a deep resistance to having conversations with their adult children about money. Why? It arises from three psychological factors that coalesce in last phase of life to create resistive barriers to open discussions about financial issues. These factors are: the need for control, denial in the form of magical thinking and the righting reflex.

 

Need for Control

The need for control is one of two primary psychological developmental tasks of the last phase of life. It unconsciously compels older adults to go to extraordinary lengths to preserve control in a world where all control is being compromised. This consumptive need usurps logic, safety and threats of poor outcomes. For aging parents, money is the currency of control and its details are best kept secret.

 

Magical Thinking

Denial with older adult usually takes the form of magical thinking. This overly optimistic perspective believes financial dilemmas will simply take care of themselves through some unexplainable process. Aging parents insist that “everything will work out fine.” As such, there is nothing to discuss with their adult children. This form of denial is surprisingly effective because it works for a while and feels real. It is a powerful way for older adults to assert control over their lives despite the threat of the process imploding at the worse possible time.

 

Righting Reflex

The righting reflex is defined by psychologists as a mechanism embedded in the human personality that always reacts poorly to unsolicited advice. While present in all age groups, the righting reflex is intensified in older adults who are besieged by challenges to their control of people and events. Despite good intentions, unsolicited advice from adult children triggers the righting reflex in aging parents that rejects any attempts to change the status quo.

Now what?

Despite these resistive barriers, financial conversations with aging parents, cannot be avoided. They are essential to preserving quality of life for both generations. However, their obvious complexity requires a “resistance calming” approach designed to reduce strong pushback while introducing a new family ritual for cooperative conversations.

 

Resistance Calming Strategy

The resistance calming strategy is a four step process that helps adult children signal through words and actions they are a trusted ally for financial issues. The four steps are disclosure, analysis, solution vetting and an action plan.

The most effective way for adult children to introduce this strategy is to look for financial situations that have the potential for some element of collaboration. It might be increased costs for medications, unplanned home repairs, utility rate hikes or an overdue notice for taxes. Whatever the event, the first step in the strategy is to orchestrate non-threatening disclosure about the situation.

 

Disclosure

Not surprising, the success of the resistance calming strategy hinges on the effectiveness of the disclosure phase. It requires a safe forum for conversations about sensitive topics where some form of collaboration can be established. This is a delicate process that despite best efforts can quickly fall apart.

Snap judgements, disapproving body language and a negative tone of voice can quickly shutdown attempts to initiate conversations about financial issues. Regardless of what is being disclosed, the resistance calming strategy requires adult children to suspend judgement and patiently seek answers to the question “what happened?”

Asking this open-ended discovery question in a curious and nonjudgmental tone combined with an attentive physical posture reinforces the message that this is a safe space to share information. Taking time to set up and sustain disclosure allows the conversation to flow into the analysis phase.

 

Analysis

The analysis phase is an expansion of the dialogue about how this situation occurred from the aging parent’s perspective. It seeks answers to the question “how do you think this happened?” It is important to remember that it is their story to interpret, and adult children need to resist the temptations to take control of the explanation. From analysis, the conversation turns to the solution vetting phase.

 

Solution Vetting

The solution vetting phase is an inquiry about the choices aging parents are considering to address the issue. It seeks to answer the question “what’s the plan?” Like disclosure, this is a thinking out loud process that needs ample space to hear how the choices sound when presented to someone else. A curious and nonjudgmental posture about the choices under consideration helps frame the collaboration tone of the process.

Solution vetting gives adult children an opportunity to offer input about possible choices. This is a delicate foray into the conversation that requires careful framing to insure that ideas and suggestions are presented as choices and not carry the “here is what you should do overtones” of unsolicited advice. Suggestive prompts like “you may want to consider…” or “have you thought about…?” are effective scripts that embellish or expand possible choices.

Remember, even the best ideas are just suggestions that may or may not be accepted. Success at this point in the strategy is not measured by aging parents agreeing with the suggestions offered by adult children. It is measured by the ability to navigate the deep resistance to these types of conversations and sustain a cooperative dialogue.

 

Action Plan

The final phase of the strategy is the action plan for implementing the parent’s choice to manage the financial concern. As with the solution vetting phase, this phase offers adult children another opportunity for input. The goal is to introduce clear ways that working together will enhance the outcome. Here’s an example of how this might be presented:

Increased cost for medications requires additional out of pocket expenses for aging parents. Their adult children offer to help them compare pharmacy outlets to identify the best pricing. They also offer to map out the cost for medications for a calendar year based on what Part D of Medicare pays and what the out of pocket portion will be. Lastly, they offer to set up a tracking system to confirm the costs and insure timely payment.

As with the solution vetting, suggestions on how to orchestrate the action plan may or may not be accepted. The important thing is that the resistance calming strategy has set a tentative precedent for collaboration of a financial issue no matter how modest its first iteration.

If the choice aging parents elect to address for the financial concern is effective, all the better. Adult children simply wait for another situation to occur that allows them to repeat and reinforce the new ritual.

If the choice aging parents elect for the financial concern is not effective, adult children simply repeat the strategy using insights from the first attempt to map out another option.

 

In practice, the resistance calming strategy is not a linear process. The phases overlap and repeat themselves in the normal flow of conversation. Part of what holds the discussion together is the intentional framing that keeps aging parents in control of the process. The other part is the commitment by adult children to remain curious and nonjudgemental throughout the discussion.

Lastly, this may seem like a laborious strategy for what should be an obvious and simple conversations about money. Unfortunately, there are few simple conversations about money between adult children and aging parents.

If a natural rapport already exists, then resistance calming techniques are clearly unnecessary. But if rapport about money is lacking, which is usually the case, resistance calming proves a better choice then the untenable burden of repeated and unpleasant confrontations or even worse no communication at all.

2 responses to “How to Communicate with Aging Parents about Money

  1. This is a very useful piece. I have not heard of the “righting reflex” before or the Resistance Calming Strategy. I do agree that they have to be able to respond with their own interpretation of events. it’s their story, that matters.

  2. The righting reflex comes “Motivational Interviewing,” a technique for helping patients change was first developed by psychologists working in addiction medicine. Since then it has moved into main stream psychology to help patients make changes to improve their health. This article from “Family Practice Management” offers an excellent summary of its principles and effectiveness: http://www.aafp.org/fpm/2011/0500/p21.html.

    Resistance Calming is a term I first phrased last year during an interview about the challenges of conversations between adult children and aging parents regarding finances.

    In the end, it is always about their story, how they see their world and what it means to them. It is the starting point and foundation of our partnership whether they are our parents, friends, clients, or patients.

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