Elderly relatives: the five vital conversations you must have with ageing loved-ones

Many find it difficult to discuss sensitive matters with our ageing loved-ones, but talking about death, inheritance and care is vital. Here's how to start tough conversations.

Love Money
Last updated: 5 April 2018 - 11.24am

When was the last time you spoke to your aging parents about death? How about debilitating illness, the cost of care, or your inheritance?

These tough subjects are not often at the top of the list for pleasant conversations to have with elderly relatives, unsurprisingly. But by avoiding the subject you could end up in all sorts of practical and financial trouble.

To avoid all that here are five difficult conversations we need to have with our parents sooner rather than later and how to start them.

Have you drawn up a lasting power of attorney (LPA)?

There’s a very good chance that the answer to this is ‘no’, given that only 7% of people in the UK have one in place. However, they can prove vital as your parents get older.

The idea is to establish someone who can make important decisions for them and act on their behalf if the time comes when they are unable to do it themselves.

There are two types of LPA. The first relates to health and welfare, and kicks in when someone loses mental capacity (the ability to make good decisions). It enables someone they trust to arrange their healthcare.

The second is for property and financial affairs. It kicks in when they lose mental capacity – or whenever they choose it to – and allows someone else to do things like pay their bills or sell their property to pay for care.

If your parents don’t have an LPA in place and they lose mental capacity, it makes things much more complicated. You will need to go to court and ask them to appoint someone to oversee their affairs. It’s an expensive process, and your parents won’t be able to choose who makes decisions for them.

You may feel it’s too early to bring these issues up, but Deborah Stone, co-founder of myageingarent.com, highlights that if you wait until they start to lose mental capacity, it’s too late, because they will no longer be allowed to draw up an LPA.

She says: “Accidents and brain injuries can take place any time, so even if your parents are relatively young, it’s important to broach the subject.”

Stone suggests parents should be encouraged to consider an LPA at the same time as making a will.

How to start the conversation

If you both know someone whose mental capacity has deteriorated, you can use this to start the conversation.

You can outline some of the issues their family has faced, and ask if your parents have anything in place to ensure someone they trust can make vital decisions.

It’s worth emphasising that rather than an LPA representing them losing control over their life, it’s a way for them to choose someone they trust to make the best decisions for them.

Do you want to go into a care home?

A study by Care UK found that 10% of people couldn’t talk to their parents about the possibility of care.

It’s hardly surprising, because it’s such an emotional subject, and it opens up the issue of what you both expect from your relationship.

If they want to move in with you, for example, but you don’t have the space or the stamina, then you need to be aware that you’re opening up a conversation with the potential to take a difficult turn.

However, if you leave the issue until the point at which your relative needs care, you introduce time pressure, stress and emotion into the conversation – which is the last thing either of you need. It’s therefore important to discuss this well in advance.

Once you have started the conversation, if you find they are open to the idea of a care home, you can also benefit enormously from talking about the cost of care.

Stone says: “It can come as a shock to people that they have to pay for their own care, so the earlier they think about it and start planning, the better.”

If they own their own home, and their spouse or dependents won’t be living there, you can broach the idea of selling the property or renting it out. This may also be an opportunity to find out about any savings or insurances they have set aside to cover the cost of care, and to discuss care annuities.

How to start the conversation

If you bring the subject up early enough, you can keep the question very general and ask: ‘What are the circumstances in which you would be happy going into a care home?’

If they are comfortable with the idea of receiving care, you can talk to them about any residential homes they know of and like, or where they would like you to consider.

If they hate the idea of receiving residential care, then there’s no point trying to persuade them, but you can outline specific possibilities, such as if they need round-the-clock nursing, or specialist help with issues such as dementia.

These things, and the impact on their family, can be incredibly hard to imagine, so talk them through these scenarios, and discuss their preferred care options.

Have you made a will?

According to a YouGov survey, two thirds of adults in the UK don’t have a will.

It’s not a surprise, as most of us don’t like to think of the idea that one day we will die, so we put it off for as long as possible.

However, if your parents die without a will, they will lose control of what happens to their money.

Dying without leaving a will – known as dying intestate – means their estate is divided according to rigid rules.

The first £250,000 will go to their spouse. After that, their children or grandchildren will inherit half of the rest. Unmarried partners, step-children and step-grandchildren are not entitled to anything.

So, if your parents want to divide their estate in a specific way a will is essential.

When they make a will, they will also set up an executor – who will sort out the inheritance and all the paperwork. If they don’t make a will, someone will be appointed to do this, but they will lose the power to choose who.

Wills can also list assets that may otherwise be hard to find after they have passed away, and make specific bequests. Without a will, there’s a chance these things will be lost, or passed on in a way that they wouldn’t like.

How to start the conversation

Nobody wants to talk about death, but we will make an exception for celebrities, so you could start by highlighting famous examples of people who died intestate.

Jill Dando, for example, died without making a will. Her fiancé was entitled to nothing, so her entire estate went to her parents. It’s a useful way to highlight the dangers of not making a will, without mentioning your parent’s eventual demise.

Alternatively, you can start with yourself. We should all have made a will – especially if we have children – so a sensible opening gambit may be: “I made a will last week.”

You can talk about the arrangements you have made, and why, and then ask your parents if they have something in place too. The big advantage of this approach is that it will force you to make a will too.

How am I going to pay for your funeral?

The Dying Matters Coalition says that less than a third (29%) of people have discussed their wishes around dying, because they don’t want to think about the possibility that one day they won’t be around.

Paul Wilson, chief executive of Avalon Funeral plans says: “It’s difficult to face our own mortality, but unless we do, our family will be left second-guessing what we want, and struggling to pay for it.

It causes a lot of turmoil that can be avoided if we can be persuaded to talk about it in advance.”

In fact, he says, once people start to open up about their wishes, it becomes a discussion about music and places that mean a great deal to them, along with people and important things in their life that they want to be a part of the funeral service. None of these things have to be terribly difficult to talk about.

A discussion may prompt elderly parents to think about the cost of their funeral, and how they can cover it.

They may have a life insurance policy written in trust to cover costs ranging from Inheritance Tax to probate and the cost of the funeral.

Alternatively, they can opt for a pre-paid funeral, or earmark a portion of their estate for funeral costs – somewhere their family can access it without waiting for probate.

How to start the conversation

For most people, the cost of a funeral will come as a real surprise, so you can start there.

The average cost of a funeral with a traditional burial is £4,136 and the average cost of a funeral with cremation is £3,214. That’s before you factor in any specific wishes, or a wake.

This information alone may be enough to get them talking about their wishes, and the costs – alternatively you may need to encourage the conversation, perhaps by discussing your own plans.

Have you done what you can to cut my Inheritance Tax bill?

This is the only one of these questions that you may end up deciding not to have after all. It all comes down to how they feel about money, tax and their family.

If they hate paying tax, and you have always been very responsible about money, then it’s worth broaching. If there’s any chance they could misread this as you just wanting their money, then you may prefer to face the tax bill instead.

If you think they would be open to a discussion, then there are some options. They can, for example, make specific gifts, such as wedding presents, small lump sums, and regular gifts from income, which count as being out of their estate as soon as they hand them over.

If they give away larger lump sums, these will also be counted as out of their estate after seven years. Alternatively, they can set up an insurance policy, written in trust, to cover the Inheritance Tax bill.

How to start the conversation

The best starting point is the facts –Inheritance Tax is charged at 40%, and that it can be payable on any part of their estate over £325,000 (with some exceptions for property).

You can mention that it is possible to pay less tax, and ask whether your parents have considered this. You can then leave them to look into the subject themselves, or talk to them about their options.

One final tip

Before you open any of these discussions, Diana Chambers, a wealth mentor and author of ‘True Wealth: Letters on Money, Life and Love’ says it’s essential to plan the conversation.

We need to find the right time and place, and check with our parents that this suits them too. Then we need to establish what we want to communicate, and why we want to communicate it (including what we stand to gain).

We then need to consider how our parents are going to feel during the conversation, and identify how we can address particularly sensitive aspects. This approach, she says, means we can start open and sensitive conversations about these subjects in the right way.

We would only put ourselves through these sorts of conversations out of love and concern for our parents. The challenge is to make this clear, rather than launching haphazardly into ill-considered chats about putting them into a home, getting them cremated on the cheap, and getting your hands on their inheritance.

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