How to plan and prepare for your parents getting older

What will happen to your parents as they age? What needs will they have? Do they have enough money set aside for care if one or both of them need it? Is your work and family life set up in a way that you could take time to step away to help and care for them if necessary?

Surveys suggest that when it comes to preparing for our parents and relatives getting old, many of us bury our heads in the sand and simply hope for the best. But the burden of care for older people often falls on adult children, who are frequently unprepared for this role, and it is mostly women that carry the brunt of this responsibility.  The challenge of caring for elderly parents is not new, but it is getting bigger and increasingly complex as our population ages and our parents live longer.

There can be tensions when shifting roles from son or daughter to caregiver, and this period of life can be incredibly stressful, especially for the ‘sandwich generation’ who still have their own children to care for at home, or where a parent has dementia or some other long-term health issue.

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While this is an unavoidable stage of life, the stresses and strains can be minimised with the right communication and planning. Read on to learn why it is so essential to prepare, and what you can do ahead of time to make this life-stage a little more manageable and a lot less stressful.

Preparing for our parents getting old is crucial

Few older people transition from being fully independent to suddenly losing their life, with no intervening period of needing assistance.

Whether we want to believe it or not, no matter how healthy their lifestyle, there comes a time in almost everyone’s life when a parent or elderly relative can no longer manage on their own and we have to reverse roles and become responsible for them. This can involve anything from helping with basic daily chores, supporting them with medical issues, taking charge of finances or sorting out their housing.

Added to this, we live in an increasingly digital world with more and more services moving online. Our parents didn’t grow up with computers and smart phones, and can’t always keep up with the rapid pace of change. So even if they are in generally good health, they can’t always manage completely by themselves, increasingly needing our help to simply use their phone, send an email or access essential services.

All of this takes time, and can be much more stressful and challenging if you haven’t previously discussed and made the necessary legal and financial arrangements, or talked about later life living and care options with them.

When is the best time to begin preparing for your parents old age?

The best time to start preparing for your parents getting old is when they are still relatively young, while they still have sound mind and judgement, ideally in their early 60s but at least by their early 70s. By taking the time to discuss and plan for the reality of your parent ageing, you can help to prevent commons pitfalls, crises and financial losses and avoid having to make stressful decisions in the moment as problems arise.

Learning about this stage of life, planning early, and revising plans as needed along the way, means you can ensure you and they have better outcomes and less regrets, keeping your parents as independent as possible for as long as possible in the place where they most want to live.

Don’t wait until they are too old or too sick. When people don’t properly prepare and plan for their parents ageing, this period of life can become what people dread most.  Waiting until a crisis strikes is a recipe for emotional chaos and stress.

Why are we so unprepared?

There are many reasons why we don’t prepare for our parents getting older, and why our parents themselves don’t prepare for getting old.

Here are some of the most common:

  • It’s hard to find the time – we live busy lives with competing priorities.
  • We live in a youth-orientated society, where ageing is can be made to feel like an avoidable option.
  • Our parents might live healthy and active lifestyles and seem as if age won’t catch up with them.
  • Our parents are often a reassuring constant throughout the ups and downs of life. People are afraid of their parents getting old and dying or simply in denial – they are not emotionally ready to face the idea or want to avoid the responsibility.
  • The subject of ageing is depressing and people don’t want to talk about it – losing independence, writing wills, becoming incontinent, getting dementia – these are not very uplifting topics.  
  • Ageing is unpredictable. There is no definitive roadmap – no one knows what will happen, what illnesses someone might get, whether they will need long term care or will just die suddenly one day.
  • Getting old is daunting and potentially very expensive. People are afraid of the unknown, don’t want to think about the financial challenges and are not always willing to plan ahead for risks that may well never occur.
  • Society doesn’t prepare us for it like it does for having a baby or going to university.

Even smart people can be completely unprepared and taken by surprise when their parents get old. But it is an error not to consider the ageing parent phase of life and factor in the potential responsibilities and impact it could have on you and your family.  This is one of the most important and demanding life stages and facing it should not be put off until a crisis happens and urgent solutions are needed. 

Don’t underestimate the challenges ahead

A serious medical event, the loss of a partner, or declining health could render your parent incapable of managing their own lives independently.

Once they start to require support or care, this presents a number of different challenges:

Time challenges

Providing adequate support may demand a significant time commitment, and adult children often have to reduce their working hours or give up work entirely to manage the care of elderly parents. It can become especially time-consuming and challenging when parents won’t accept external help, insisting solely on their adult child or children to assume the support or caregiving role.

Financial challenges

Many people underestimate the financial cost of elderly care. Eldercare can be expensive and these costs are escalating. The average time for using long term elderly care is between 2-3 years, but when someone has dementia or Alzheimer’s it can be anywhere from 10 to 20 years. In the UK, the typical hourly rate for a carer to come to the home is around £20 an hour, while a live-in carer can cost anything from around £800 to £1600 a week.  Residential care starts at a minimum of £700 a week for one person, and varies according to location and care needs.

Logistical challenges

Coordinating medical appointments, managing medications, and organising daily activities can become a logistical nightmare, which can be particularly difficult if you live far away from your parents. Navigating the health and social care system to deal with your parent’s needs can be confusing and stressful, as can finding suitable carers or care support, and it can be hard to entrust the care of your vulnerable parent to a stranger even if they are a professional.

Emotional challenges

The emotional toll of witnessing the physical and cognitive decline of loved ones can be overwhelming. And if you are managing the care of your parents on your own, it can be hard to find time for yourself to address your own emotional needs and wellbeing – especially if your parent is very dependent.  Feelings of anger and resentment can also surface, as can a sense of helplessness or guilt for thinking you’re not doing enough.

Relationship challenges

Siblings rarely assume equal responsibility for caring for a parent, and it is not uncommon for just one sibling to take on the majority of support and care. This can lead to frustration and arguments and a breakdown in communication. If you don’t get along well with your parent or siblings form the start, this adds further complexity to the challenge of supporting you parent in old age.

Five steps to preparing ahead for your parent’s old age

Even if you are aware of the challenges ahead and want to prepare for the future, it is not always easy to know where or how to start. How do you plan for the unknown? How do you broach the subject with your parents and family members?

Here are five steps to help you get started:

1: Organise a family meeting to broach the topic

Planning and preparation should involve the whole family – parents and siblings – so everyone is clear and comfortable with decisions being made. Your parents should feel that they have autonomy in the decisions around their life.  The whole point of planning is to be empowered and take control of the future. It’s also important that they don’t feel pressured and the meeting or talk doesn’t feel like an interrogation or intervention. These discussions require tact, patience and understanding. One way to broach the subject could be, for example, to say that you were reading an article on preparing for old age the other day and it made you realise that you’ve never discussed their plans or preferences for old age. They will be more willing to have a conversation if you make it clear how having this meeting will benefit them by helping to:

  • Minimise an age-related crisis, or avoid one altogether
  • Ensure they have a say in their future based on their own preferences
  • Increase their chances of remaining independent for longer
  • Improve the likelihood that they can stay living where they want to
  • Build and maintain harmonious family relations
  • Give them reassurance that the family will know how to proceed according to their wishes in an emergency or event of death

2: Think about the questions and areas you want to talk about beforehand

Once your parents have agreed to a meeting and discussion about planning for old age, it’s important to do some research and prepare beforehand to ensure you cover off all the important topics. Here are some topics you should consider:

  • Financial security: Sometimes parents are reluctant to talk about their finances, but it is important to have a clear picture of their financial situation and to know what eventualities they have prepared for financially.  What accounts, income, pensions and savings do they have? Are there enough resources to cover potential costs of care if needed? If not, how can this be addressed? Are they planning to sell their home to fund their care? Do you need to get the support or advise of a financial advisor? Do they need to take out any insurance?
  • Health: With people living longer, it is important to take measures to maintain good health and prevent illness as much as possible. Your parents might be fit and healthy, but the more you know about their health and medical situation the better prepared you will be to deal with or even prevent health issues arising. How is their current health? Are there any health issues to be mindful of? Who are their doctors? Do they have health insurance? How are they managing their health? Do they have routine check-ups? What medicines do they take? Are they taking any preventative health measures? Are they meeting their nutritional needs? Are they getting enough exercise?
  • Legalities: Do they have a will and are the beneficiaries up to date? Where are the will and other important documents kept? What about powers of attorney – are these already set up or do they need to be created? Multiple surveys show that the majority of adults in the UK do not have a will, including many people over the age of 55. Even fewer have set up powers of attorney. People generally don’t like discussing their own mortality and many just simply haven’t gotten around to it. But in the event of death or a crisis, the absence of a will or powers of attorney can lead to huge stress, complications and sadly often family feuds.
  • Living arrangements: If your parents have lots of children or relatives living nearby, it can be easier to stay home and remain independent. But families are often spread out. Do they plan to stay living in the same place? Is their house or location suitable for an older person? If they were to move, where would they want to live? Would they want to move closer to you / your siblings? Do they have any mortgage or home debts? Do they expect to be cared for at home or do they plan to go into a care home if their health required it?
  • Event of death: Today, there are increasingly varied options and alternatives for funerals and burials. Traditional funerals are dwindling as people look to arrange more personal tributes. Do you know what your parent’s funeral preferences are? What kind of ceremony would they want? Would they prefer to be buried or cremated? What music would they want? Planning and organising a funeral after someone has passed can be made much less distressing for everyone involved if you know that you are fulfilling their wishes.

Once you’ve prepared what you want to talk about, don’t forget to bring a pen and paper to the meeting to make notes, or record the meeting on your phone if needed, so you can capture everything you discuss.  This is especially important if any siblings or other involved members of the family cannot attend.

3: Discuss and divide responsibilities with your siblings

When it comes to supporting parents in their old age, it’s important to be open and transparent in discussing roles and responsibilities with siblings or other relatives concerned.  Who does what will depend on various factors, but it is best to try and share the burden as much as possible so it doesn’t all fall on one person’s shoulders, which isn’t fair and can create resentment. For example, it may make sense for whoever lives geographically closest to provide the majority of on-the-ground practical support (such as helping with shopping, taking parents to medical appointments), while another sibling could manage the financial and legal responsibilities. If outside support is needed, perhaps someone else could be responsible for sourcing and managing this. In any event, it is crucial to work together as a team. If you don’t already have one, set up a WhatsApp or Facebook Group between you to ensure everyone stays in the loop.

4: Organise paperwork and seek relevant support

Once you’ve had the initial discussion with your parents and siblings and agreed on a plan, you and your family need to start organising the paperwork and putting the relevant preparations in place.

These may include:

  • Making a list of bank accounts and financial details.  One parent usually takes care of the financial matters – the other may not know where everything is. If the parent responsible for finances suddenly dies or has a serious medical event, and no one has a clear understanding of the finances, this can cause enormous additional stress during the period of turmoil. Mapping out the bank accounts, incomes and financial details also helps to give a clear financial picture to plan for any future care needs.
  • Seeking the advice and support of a professional financial advisor, tax accountant or lawyer if needed to put the financial measures and legal documentation in place that you need.
  • Organising health check ups and taking out or updating health insurance policies.
  • Creating a list of important information, such as usernames and passwords, medical contacts, medications.

5: Educate yourself on ageing and how to spot the red flags that your parent needs help

Last but by no means least, don’t forget to start educating yourself on ageing, and the warning signs you need to look out for.  It’s always better if you can spot and deal with age-related problems early on before they develop into a bigger challenge.  When you do visit or speak to your parents, pay close attention and if you spot anything concerning, such as problems with memory or comprehension, or unusual behaviour, take action to get it checked out.

In summary

Facing the reality of our parents ageing and eventually dying is daunting, but this is an inevitable part of life. Don’t wait for a crisis, or let the common reasons for avoiding this topic deter you and your family from taking proactive steps that could reduce the stresses and strains associated with this life stage.

Starting the conversation early allows for informed decision-making and the avoidance of crisis-driven choices.

While the road ahead will still be challenging, proactive planning and open communication can transform how you and your family experience this life stage, providing your parents with the autonomy they deserve and creating a much more supportive environment for the entire family.

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