How do you take the car keys away from a father who taught you to drive? When did he go from wise council to frail, elderly man?

Unfortunately, the "What to Expect When You're Expecting" book series on parenting doesn't have a volume on parenting your parents. If anyone thinks dealing with aging parents is easy, they're deluding themselves. It is often one of the most difficult challenges people face during their adult lives - and one for which they're least prepared.

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The consequences of inaction, meanwhile, can be severe. Many adult children don't understand the complexity of the problem. Why would their parents resist setting up a power of attorney? Will they have to be dragged kicking and screaming to a senior facility? The answer all too often is "yes," even well after it has become painfully apparent to others that they are no longer capable of handling their own affairs.

The fact is many elderly people don't see themselves as elderly and hate being around other old people. To them, moving to a senior facility involves making a move that they feel they can never undo; they are moving in their minds from independence to dependence. Hence the kicking and screaming.

Knowing this, many parents hide trouble signs from their children. Couple such behavior with the fact that many children are themselves pressed for time and unprepared to take responsibility for their parents, and the entire situation is fraught with peril. Early on, children often ignore danger signs or delude themselves into thinking that their parents can still make good decisions. (For related reading, see Talking To Aging Parents About Money.)

I know an attorney whose 92-year-old mother enjoyed sending out $15 and $20 checks to play sweepstakes. Soon, the mother became obsessed with winning so she could leave a large legacy to her sons. It didn't take long before a woman who had run an investment club, golfed into her 80s and taken Spanish lessons in her 90s was doing nothing but playing sweepstakes. Since her phone number was on her checks, she started receiving phone calls from scam artists and eventually was "caught" by her kids taking a cab to the bank to send $2,000 to a "nice fellow named John in Seattle" who supposedly had an even larger check waiting for her.

The cab ride became the wakeup call for the woman's family. My friend talked to his mother at length about her sweepstakes obsession and finally confiscated her checkbook, took over her bank accounts and had her mail diverted to his own home. With no sweepstakes offers arriving at his mom's house, she slowly returned to her community activities. For my friend, who'd ignored signs along the way and let the situation reach the breaking point before intervening, the solution required months of effort.

At least he'd had the power of attorney that enabled him to act and had his mother in a good assisted living facility. Imagine the difficulties when none of this is in place. Being proactive early on, rather than reactive after problems arrive, provides adult children with the tools to intervene effectively. Here are some important proactive steps to make sure you and your family are prepared:

  • Establish a financial power of attorney. If your parent has concerns about losing control, consider a "springing" power that goes into effect only after the parent is unwilling, or unable, to make financial decisions alone.
  • Add a durable power of attorney for healthcare to the estate plan. Be sure to discuss with your parent and family what medical treatment is, and is not, desired.
  • Consider working with a financial advisor who specializes in multigenerational planning. This can help you balance the needs of parents for elder care, your own children for college and you for retirement. Aging parents may also be more apt to cooperate after receiving advice from an outside expert.
  • Keep on hand updated lists of parents' medications. This is especially helpful in tracking drug interactions when parents use multiple doctors.
  • Add a family member to your parents' safe deposit box and keep track of the key.
  • Review long-term care policies and consider in advance ways to fund additional care if it becomes necessary.
  • Talk with parents and siblings about the types of care that are available and when it would be wise to move. This helps prepare everyone mentally for big life changes.

It's impossible to pinpoint when any one family will have to take action on behalf of an aging parent, but it's important for grown children to keep in mind that their parents may downplay or hide signs that they're struggling to remain independent. Here are some early warning signs:

  • A parent stops participating in activities and becomes isolated.
  • His or her routine changes, often with a shift from cooking to eating packaged foods.
  • He or she shows signs of poor judgment in managing money and becomes susceptible to fraud.
  • His or her support system changes, with people who used to help having moved elsewhere or passed away.
  • The parent becomes forgetful.

For many adult children, becoming a member of the sandwich generation involves taking care of elderly parents precisely at the time in their lives when they're faced with the challenges of getting their own children safely through their teenage years. To minimize the tribulations of this difficult time in life, it is critical to prepare early and have plans in place to take action if and when it becomes necessary. The alternative is to face the risk of a major family crisis right around the time you're taking the car keys from your parents and giving them to your teenager.

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