As a financial planner, Christopher Brown helps clients prepare to pay for retirement, college for their kids and the unexpected. But even he was caught off-guard this year when his 75-year-old father was hospitalized.
The elder Brown has been the caregiver for his 80-year-old wife, who has osteoporosis. Suddenly, the son was dealing with his parents' financial and health care issues while raising his own family and running his Rockville, Md., business.
"When this happened to me, my aunt said, 'Welcome to the sandwich generation. You just took a big bite out of it,' " the 47-year-old said.
Millions of others have found themselves playing a similar role. An AARP survey a few years ago estimated that 44.4 million Americans are taking care of another adult, often an elderly parent or other relative. That number isn't likely to drop, given today's longer life expectancy. Baby boomers and GenXers — the oldest now in their 40s — are going to have to confront how to care for aging parents who might live well into their 80s, 90s and beyond.
Money issues often are difficult for family members to talk about. Throw in illness, long-term care and death, and it's a discussion that parents and their adult children often try to avoid.
"There is never going to be a good time to do this, but there is going to be a bad time," Brown said. "The bad time is when there is a crisis in the family."
Indeed, parents are more likely to be threatened if children wait until a medical emergency to broach the subject of finances and long-term care, said Howard Gleckman, author of Caring for Our Parents. When parents fall ill, "they become terrified of losing their independence," said Gleckman, who has cared for his father and father-in-law.
Instead, children can raise the subject by inviting parents on a trip to a lawyer's office so all of them can have the necessary health care and financial papers drawn up at the same time, Gleckman suggested.
Or, he said, a child can appeal to one parent to get the finances and documents in order to help the other. "You can say, 'Let's do it for Mom. What if you die?' " Gleckman said.
Brown's situation offers some insights. He had discussed financial matters with his parents before, so he wasn't uncomfortable raising the subject recently. Still, there were things he didn't know.
He wasn't sure of the details of their long-term-care policies. And though he was listed as someone who can access their safe-deposit box, the financial planner didn't know the location of the key and the bank branch that held the box.
He wasn't fully aware of all the medications his parents took. And he needed his parents to fill out privacy authorization forms with all the physicians so that he could get their test results or other medical information.
Brown's father recovered, but the financial work isn't done.
"I feel like in some ways I've been give a second chance to dot the i's and cross the t's," the planner said. "And a lot of people don't get that chance."
On the list of things to do:
Update estate planning documents: Like many married couples, Brown's parents named each other — 15 years ago — to handle the medical and financial affairs when necessary. But now, with their health failing, those documents need updating so Brown can take on that responsibility, he said.
And while Brown knows where his parents want to be buried, he needs to find out whether the plots have been paid for.
LIST AND LOCATE: Parents should put together a list of their assets and where they are located. Gleckman said his mother-in-law handled the money in her marriage, and when she died, her husband had no idea about their finances. The family had to sift through a drawer full of statements, like financial forensic scientists, trying to figure out which bank or brokerage accounts were open or closed, he said.
FACE-TO-FACE MEETINGS: Brown recommends that children meet with all of the professionals in their parents' lives. "There is no substitute for meeting their doctors, attorneys and financial advisers face to face," he said. "You need to start a relationship with them."
All of this can be time-consuming, but Brown said a child is going to have to address these issues with parents sooner or later.
"You might as well do it when they are healthy rather than in a crisis situation," he said. Otherwise "the stress level on both you and them will go through the roof."