THE BLOG
07/06/2011 01:46 pm ET | Updated Sep 05, 2011

A Million Questions that Need to be Asked of Our Aging Parents

How do you deal with elderly parents who are not living near you? What happens when their health begins to fail? How do you know that they are doing okay?

We are taught from when we are very young to "respect" our elders ... but what if what they want is not what you think is the best for them? What if what I think might be "best" for my parent, is not something with which my parent agrees? "Best" is a relative term (no pun intended), so, where does the middle ground come in? One of the Ten Commandments is to "obey" our parents. Well, what happens when we think that it is not in their best interest to continue living where they are living or we feel it is unsafe, and they disagree with us?

And when it comes to healthcare, where does one draw the line in terms of how much is too much treatment and to what end? Further, when it comes to money, how much money can be spent on day-to-day living when funds are being used at a pace beyond what was planned? When does "respect" become "responsibility"?

These are all questions that plague many of us who have elderly parents. With our mobile lifestyles, many of our parents do not live close to where we live. How do we keep track of them? How come when my brother talks to my parents, he gets a different part of the "story" of what is happening with them than I do? When we compare notes, we often have different information and that can get frustrating and perplexing.

What this has meant practically, is that my brother and I talk a lot more often and we compare notes. This is a good thing for us, because it has brought us even closer. However, many of my friends don't have siblings on whom to rely or share concerns and compare notes. How do they ensure that their parent is getting the best care possible? How do they handle being the "sandwich" generation -- they have aging parents and growing children and they can't pick up and go at a moments' notice when their parent gets sick?

Based on my own recent experience, one of the best ways to handle and have some sense of control concerning our aging parents who don't live near us, is to ensure that they have all of the documents they need in order for them to be protected, and, to know where these documents are kept. Do they have a health care advance directive naming someone to make their decisions for them if they are unable to make them for themselves? Have they had "those conversations" with you about what they physically want and don't want as they near the end of their life? And, a question I recently realized that I had never asked my parents -- "Do you prefer to die at home or in a hospital." (My dad's initial response, by the way, was "I'd actually prefer not to die.") Have they completed a power of attorney document that enables someone else to make financial and other decisions for them if they are unable to make them for themselves? Do they have their financial and property wills? Do they have all of their "important papers" in one easy-to-find place? Do you know where their bank is located and what accounts they have? Should you be added as a signatory to their accounts?

More practically, do you know who their doctors are? Have you met them when visiting your parents? If not, make sure that you do the next time you are visiting them. Have you met their neighbors and do you have their phone numbers in case you need to reach out to them for your parents? Do you know to which hospital they are most likely to be taken? Do you know if they have a life insurance policy?

These are important questions to know the answers to not only for parents who are living far away from you, but also for those who are close by. But, it is harder for those of us who need to care for our parents long distance. When that call comes that mom fell or dad couldn't find his way home, will you be prepared? Will you know what to do and who to call?

I recently had to revisit some of these questions and was surprised to find out what I didn't know. Sitting with my parents to have conversations about what options were open to them now that they are in their mid-80s and perhaps need a little more oversight than they have needed in the past, was sad for them and for me, but it was a conversation we had to have. And, for many of us, there is that most uncomfortable topic that needs to be discussed - money. Financially, can they, and we, afford for them to continue to live where they are? We want them to be happy AND we want them to be safe AND we want them to have "enough" money to enable them to live in the style to which they have been accustomed, and which they deserve after a lifetime or working hard.

These conversations are never easy, but they need to happen, and the earlier the better for everyone involved, especially the financial conversation. With the collapse of the stock market and the housing market, many people have been forced to make difficult decisions with their aging relatives. The property that they thought was going to be "insurance" for their financial future, is turning out to be a loss instead of a profit in some parts of the U.S. Additionally, their investment income has dwindled, not enabling them to be as assured about their money-flow as they once were and hoped to have available for their "twilight years."

So, as I learned, don't assume that you know. Be prepared. Ask them questions and write the answers down since you will not be able to think clearly when the crisis strikes. Agree on a place to put all of their important papers. And, once you are sure that you are prepared with your parents, be sure to do your own preparations so that your kids will be knowledgeable about your wishes, both financial and health-wise. Also, make sure that they know where to look to find your important papers.

It is not always easy to obey our parents, but it is easier to care for them from afar when you have done your homework with them. They can rest easier and so can you.