People would rather talk about many, many other things than the daunting and awkward “m” word: money. It’s scary to talk about money with aging parents.

It’s a topic that can cause disagreements and tension among families. But the important thing to keep in mind when discussing money, especially with aging parents, is to approach the conversation with concern, with respect and with a plan for the future without additional worry. While the conversation can be challenging to navigate, experts can offer guidance on how to do so in a way that both adult children and parents can express their opinions and everyone involved can come to an agreeable decision.

“You want to approach these topics with sensitivity, empathy and respect,” says Sean Campbell, senior wealth counselor at Versant Capital Management. “I think you want to lead with loving intentions, and let your parents know you want to discuss their financial life because you care.”

A Fidelity Investments survey found nearly two-thirds of families disagree about the optimal time to have a discussion about money. And according to a March 2017 survey by financial services group TIAA, 30 percent of sons and 43 percent of daughters said they found it “uncomfortable” to talk with their parents about money.

“The most important thing that I tell folks is that it’s important to remember that no matter what the circumstances, these people are always your parents,” says Donna Taylor, COO of LifeStream Complete Senior Living. “Approach the conversation from that place of respect and honoring the fact that they are the parents. Recognize that sometimes the relationship that has existed now or in the past is going to color the tone of that conversation. I’m a big fan of simple and direct, but also being understanding.”

Taylor recommends people approach the conversation without accusation, and consider their parents’ feelings as they could feel a little defensive given they’re getting older and their children are talking about their money.

“When I approached it with my parents, I viewed it as: I want to make sure I am positioned as best I can possibly be to support what you want going into the future and to do that, I need information,” she says.

Getting started

Taylor says approaching this conversation is going to be guided by the parents’ and children’s relationship.

“For some people, it works very well to sit down and have a candid conversation,” she says; but for others, she says, it’s understanding what or where to find certain information such as their parents’ financial planner’s contact information or knowing if there are estate documents or a power of attorney in place in case financial, medical or mental health decisions need to be made.

Lennard van der Feltz, the founding partner of Pinnacle Financial Advisors, says this conversation begins with planning how you’re going to approach it — tactfully with love — and realizing that your parents may have been managing their money on their own for many years.

“One of the things I think is paramount is are you the only child or are there siblings involved?” van der Feltz says. “Can you get on the same page with each other? When all the children of your parents are on the same page, it becomes a lot more doable to discuss individual financial topics without creating strife in the family.”

One resource people can use for advice on how to approach this conversation is LifeStream Complete Senior Living’s Taylor says people can view the checklist and listen to a three-part podcast that walks them through starting that conversation, the options that are available and how to pay for long-term living, retirement or whatever their future plans are.

In a study by Fidelity Investments, 75 percent of adult children and their parents agreed it’s important to have frank conversations about retirement expenses, eldercare and estate planning. However, only 44 percent have had detailed discussions about covering living expenses in retirement; 37 percent had discussed healthcare and elder care in depth; and 59 percent had detailed conversations about wills and estates.

In addition, Joel Johnson, East Valley market president for FirstBank, says if you have the ability, the children should be proactive with this discussion so you don’t make decisions when you’re rushed or you can’t fully think through. That way, everybody has a say and can participate in the results.

Having this discussion early can help mediate any issues that may arise later and lessen the stress involved. For some families, having this conversation during or around the holidays can be the best time since most likely the family is together. Johnson recommends choosing a relaxed time where all the involved parties can get together in the same place.

Stressful discussion

“It absolutely can be stressful and it’s a hard conversation to have,” he says, “but from a business standpoint, we see a lot of people that are having to deal with this after a life-changing event has already taken place. Children are out of town sometimes or parents are no longer able to be involved in those decisions and the exponential amount of stress that causes to the situation is no fun for anybody to see or have to go through. I think if you can plan ahead and have that conversation earlier, it puts a road map in place on how things are going to be dealt with and what’s going to happen. I think the peace of mind that all parties get from that is a good thing.”

Campbell agrees.

“I think if you can look past the emotions and make a plan ahead of time, it can help ensure that poor decisions aren’t left to chance,” Campbell says. “It’s really about working with parents to ensure that their wishes are clearly articulated and respected and reducing misconceptions can help ease family tensions and disharmony.

“I think these discussions, while difficult, can help all family members breathe easier, and I think if the decisions are made relatively quickly in the middle of a crisis, they may or may not be aligned with the loved ones’ wishes. You let your parents know you care about them, and you want to make things easier for them, and you’re providing security and peace of mind, and it’s worth the initial awkwardness,” Campbell says.

The general consensus is to have the conversation early and before it’s needed. Often, that can mean when parents are still working or shortly after retirement.

“If you can discuss it and come to agreements when there is not yet a cloud on the horizon, then that’s the best for all involved,” van der Feltz says.

“We would advocate for having the conversations early, if for no other reason than to be sure we understand what your mom and dad want,” Taylor says. “Because coming from that position of choice and control, it’s always going to be a better place than acting when you’re in a crisis. Arguably, even with all the great planning, there may still be a crisis, but I’d much rather go into a crisis armed with the right information.”

Don’t wait

While it’s agreed that this discussion is best had before it’s needed — before children notice their parents’ forgetting to do certain things, such as paying their bills on time, van der Feltz says.

“Initially, it’s not a big deal but it starts to build up and when you start noticing that, the earlier the better while still respecting your parents’ knowledge about what they do know and what their preferences are,” he says.

Campbell says you don’t have to know everything about your parents’ assets and liabilities, but there are certain things to be aware of, such as critical financial and health documents, where they’re kept, and if possible, review them annually to keep them up to date.

“I also think it’s important to try to give your parents control whenever possible, you want to reassure them it’s not an attempt to take over their life. You simply want to offer to help them as they age,” Campbell says.

Because of the difficult nature of this type of conversation, it can be valuable to consult a professional such as a financial planner or advisor, who can alleviate tension and mediate any conflict to have a productive outcome.

“It’s sometimes a little hard for parents to suddenly have you be the responsible adult in the room, that role reversal can be at times quite stressful even though everybody understands that you’re doing it out of the best intentions,” van der Feltz says. “And a third party who has words of wisdom to share and is good at building and bridging relationships, goes way beyond the quality of their investment advice or financial knowledge, that counseling relationship can add tremendous value.”

Third-party help

In addition, Johnson says important documents that can help the third-party begin assessing parents’ financial situation are financial statements which give a picture of assets and liabilities and ongoing sources of income because it  “gives whoever is going to be analyzing that information a good starting point and a good map to see what needs to be dealt with and what that path forward looks like for later life stages.”

Van der Feltz says both parents and children can benefit from having this discussion because “there may be stresses later in life that don’t have anything to do with managing the finances per se … but if you can focus on those other elements without having to worry about money and how it is being managed, that is terrific, both for the parents whose money it is and whose life is being left, but also for the children who are worried about their parents and want the best for them.”

“There’s always this tendency on our part to want to figure out what the next many years look like and plan for each eventuality,” Taylor says. “My best advice is to make the best decisions you can with the information you’re working with right now. With aging, there is a lot of change that happens in those latter years of our life, and I know for me and the people I love, I want them to experience their best life during this portion of time.”