According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, someone turning age 65 today has almost a 70 percent chance of needing some type of long-term care services and support in their remaining years. As this demographic continues to grow—Minnesota projects that the number of older residents (age 65+) will double by 2030—they need to consider how to communicate finance, health and lifestyle plans with loved ones. 

Marti DeLiema Ph.D., an assistant professor in the College of Education and Human Development, shares tips on how older adults can have meaningful conversations with adult family members. 

When is the right time to talk with family about decisions that come with aging?

Prof. DeLiema: It’s never too early to start having open conversations about planning for major life decisions and events that accompany aging. Ideally these conversations should happen around retirement. That’s when many people are engaged in financial planning and are deciding where they want to live and how they can bring meaning and purpose into their lives now that work obligations are behind them. However, many people are waiting much longer to retire. That’s why I recommend that older people start to have open conversations about health, money, and housing whenever they are gathered with family and have done some advance thinking about their personal goals and expectations for the future. It may feel like there is never a good time given how busy our lives are, but these are not conversations to put off. People need to have helpers lined up to assist with them when unexpected health, financial, and other emergencies arise. Talking to family members about our needs and expectations will help make sure that our wishes are honored. It will also take away the guesswork for our family, giving everyone more peace of mind.

What kind of financial decisions should be discussed?

Prof. DeLiema: First, older adults need to pick and appoint someone to be their surrogate financial decision maker (their financial advocate) so that they are prepared for a time when they can’t manage their money on their own. This person needs to be someone they trust, someone who acts with integrity and will put the older person’s needs above their own. After the older adult gets all their financial and insurance information in order, they can do a walk through of their finances with their future financial advocate, explaining their different accounts, income streams, insurance policies, regular bills, and their financial goals. If the chosen financial advocate has to take over and help someday, it’s important that they have all the information they need to do the job well. 

The financial advocate also needs to be appointed as an agent under durable power of attorney (POA). A durable POA is a legal document that a lawyer can draw up. It specifies what the financial advocate can and can’t do to act on behalf of the older person (the “principal”) as it pertains to managing their money and property. Financial institutions and state and federal benefit programs require that the advocate have a POA for accessing the older adults’ money to pay for care or household expenses, as well as to complete forms to apply for government benefits.

What questions should be considered when it comes to health?

Prof. DeLiema: Similarly, older adults (all adults in fact!) should pick a person they believe is capable of making health and medical decisions for them if they were to lose capacity. This person can be the same or different person as the financial advocate. Discussions should focus on what it means to have a high quality of life and their goals for medical interventions and treatments for serious illness and for end-of-life care. Families should also discuss long term care plans and goals. Do I want to be cared for at home or live in an assisted living community? Do I want my adult children to care for me or to pay professionals? This is the time to consider what care the older person can afford and what options are available in the place they want to live. Like financial conversations, discussions about long-term care, medical treatment preferences, and end-of-life care need to happen early, long before the need for care arises.

What are examples of lifestyle choices people can make as they age?

Prof. DeLiema: Lifestyle choices are dictated by a person’s resources. Retirees with substantial savings have more flexibility, and therefore more decisions to make. Some people may want to move to be closer to their adult children or move to a warmer climate. 

Other people have more limited choices. For example, they may need to sell their home to pay for the care they need. All older adults should take a look at their finances and develop a retirement income strategy. They need to make sure they can cover their daily expenses, emergency expenses, and pursue a life filled with meaningful activities and social engagement.

What resources can the University of Minnesota provide as a guide to these conversations?

Prof. DeLiema: My colleagues and I developed resources to help older adults initiate conversations with friends and family members about future money management. The Thinking Ahead Roadmap is a step-by-step planning guide that walks individuals through developing a personalized money management plan, including getting their finances in order, obtaining a POA, and knowing when to transition financial responsibilities to someone they trust. At the end of this process older adults will feel a huge burden lifted off their shoulders. They will be much more financially protected and more likely to have their needs met down the road by the person or people they know and trust. Individuals can download the free materials at Thinkingaheadroadmap.org.

Marti DeLiema  is an assistant professor in the College of Education and Human Development and can be reached atmdeliema@umn.edu.

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