How healthy are your aging parents right now?

So many aging parents don’t realistically face their own health issues. When asked “how is your health these days?”, they answer “great”. And when you look at their health honestly, you will find that they have several chronic health conditions that they take medication for every day. And there are more health problems besides those they admit they have. They are treated for all of them. is that a problem

This may be because not recognizing the health risk of your elderly parents is a recipe for disaster. The more that happens to them, the more likely you are to face a health crisis. Financial advisors say that “failure to plan is a plan to fail.” I think this applies to health issues as well. For example, doctors tell your elderly parents to change their diet if they are overweight. But they don’t. They don’t plan for the health risks of obesity. And eventually it catches up with them in the form of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, etc. Their health deteriorates or fails as you watch it happen. This call in the middle of the night is from the paramedics. You rush there and wait tensely in the hospital emergency room.


In a conversation with a client in her late 70s, I asked about her health. She described it as “awesome”. She admitted that she has high cholesterol, arthritis, a nerve problem and severe joint damage that prevents her from raising her right arm. She is right handed. She would also need another knee replacement soon. He was taking several medications. She lived alone. At her son’s request, I asked her what she had planned for the possibility that at some point later she would need to change her living situation to receive care for health problems. Any one of them could cause her to lose her independence. “I don’t need to worry about that,” she said angrily. “I might not even need to think about it in the next 20 years.” I found her comment quite sad, but not untypical of people who are older, even though they’re doing fine at home alone for now. They don’t take it on the road, they may need help with their daily activities.

The effect of denial on families

When an aging parent approaching age 80 living with multiple chronic health conditions refuses to plan ahead for possible declining independence, the burden falls on families. The aging parent refuses to accept the idea that anything can go wrong. Of course, in their own minds they will remain exactly the same for the next 20 years. The truth is, most of us won’t be able to function fully independently by age 100. In the example above, her son might get that call in the middle of the night and he would resent it. He tries to prevent that he is ill-prepared. We are working on a more realistic handling of the future with him and his mother.

This example is one we see repeatedly at, where we consult with families of seniors. The waiver works until the inevitable emergency occurs. Then family members scramble to decide how to care for, what to do with mom or dad who can no longer live on their own, and how the elderly parent will pay for what they need. It is extremely stressful to be forced to make these decisions under pressure, without prior planning.

How to approach the aging parent in denial

Many 80-year-olds with multiple health problems who think they are in “wonderful health” are delusional. Family members who would be called upon to help them after a fall, stroke, or other event must step up, whether they want to or not. It is unwise to argue with your elderly parent about what might happen down the road. They will probably get mad at you and refuse to face the truth. This is an emotional issue that is not subject to your logic. Don’t start with “It’s for your own good.” They don’t believe you. Rather, start by talking about how you worry about their… (pick any condition they have or all conditions), and mention how a crisis would put a huge burden on YOU. Describe how you would have to drop everything and rush to help with no idea how to provide for them. Let the aging parent know that putting this burden on you would not be fair.

What to avoid

When your aging parent gets mad at you for bringing up the subject of a possible decline in independence in their future, don’t take it personally. They’re not directly mad at you, even though it sounds like it. They are angry because deep down they probably know you are right and are afraid of what you have brought up. Avoid getting angry with them. This is not going to help.

It will do no good to try to argue with them and dismiss their claims about how good their health is despite medical diagnoses to the contrary. This is using reason, and of course reason does not work against their fears of losing control of their lives. Instead, acknowledge that it’s a difficult subject and maybe right now isn’t the best time for them to talk about it. But don’t stop there. Insist that they let you discuss it next week, next month, or soon. Bookmark your calendar and bring it up again. You may need to repeat this process, especially with a stubborn aging parent. You can eventually relate to them, especially if they have a friend or relative who has fallen, had a heart attack or stroke, or needs to move into a senior living community to get the help they need. Use this friend as an example when you can.

Food to take home

No one wants to be seen as needing help or with a condition that causes a loss of independence. We value independence in our culture to the extreme. It is scary for an elderly loved one to consider and must plan for the possibility of needing care from others every day. But when families get pushback from an aging parent for asking about it, and you say no because you don’t want them to be mad at you, that’s not a solution. Aim for these goals:

  1. Find out what your parent would like if they need daily or frequent care
  2. Find out what resources they have available to pay for things like home care, assisted living, or other living arrangements where care is available.
  3. Find out their preferences about where they want to live. Is moving closer to family an option? Do they prefer local resources instead?
  4. Be sure to first look at their estate planning documents to see if they are up to date and learn what they have planned with their estate planning attorney for any future care needs. This possibility is described in any well-drafted trust. It may say something about assets used primarily for care and maintenance.
  5. If the aging parents have a financial manager or advisor, get written permission to communicate with them. Raise the issue of a plan for possible future care and how resources will be directed to its implementation.

Doing all these sometimes unpleasant tasks will not work if you are not committed to it. But it’s the best thing you can do for yourself if you’re the adult child of an aging loved one with the usual health problems. The consequences of inaction are likely to come upon you in the form of sudden and avoidable severe stress. No one needs more stress!

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