Weekly Articles

How to (Gently) Help Your Aging Parents Manage Their Money

Helping with their finances before a crisis erupts is a smart move, but a tricky one. Experts suggest some strategies that work.

By Alina Tugend

When Reagan Alonso, a semiretired nurse living in Jacksonville, Fla., first gently offered to help her aging mother with her finances, she encountered resistance.

Her mother, now 88, was born in Ohio, and “being from the Midwest and of that generation, we’re very much, ‘you don’t talk about money,’” Ms. Alonso, 60, said. “When it came to the point when I told her I have to put my name on your checking account, she was at first very suspicious. I told her ‘the checkbook is going to be with you, and I’m not taking any control away from you.

Family conversations about money are rarely easy. But that’s especially true with older parents who are still relatively capable of managing their lives — and don’t want their children to do it for them.

As we get older, “our cognitive abilities are not what they were, but unfortunately our confidence continues to be very high,” said Liz Weston, a Los Angeles-based certified financial planner, author and writer for the website NerdWallet. “It’s like driving a car with the parts falling off and we’re insisting everything is fine until we hit the tree.”

But the idea is to gain control of that car before the crash.

“It takes a lot of patience and persistence,” said Lauren Locker, a certified financial planner in Passaic, N.J. “This is the kind of conversation that needs to start early on, because sometimes it can take years” for parents to be willing to accept help.

Before the parental conversation, there needs to be a sibling conversation, Ms. Locker said. That’s easier in some families than others, but brothers and sisters need to be on the same page, she said, about approaching the parent.

That doesn’t mean the discussions need to be with the entire family. The child who is closest to the parents (psychologically or logistically), the most comfortable with tough conversations or the most financially savvy can initiate it — as long as all sisters and brothers are kept informed.

Then — the experts agreed — don’t approach the issue by simply asking if your parents would like help with their finances. That implies, no matter how compassionately the question is asked, that they are not capable to handle their affairs.

Focus not on what they might or might not be doing, but on what the family as a whole needs to do to help, said Carolyn McClanahan, a certified financial planner and medical doctor in Jacksonville, Fla. And do it with empathy and a lack of judgment.

For instance, if a family member is already the point person on finances, he or she can say “I’m honored you put me in charge, and I’m concerned that I don’t have all the information I need. At some point in life, something is going to happen, and I want to make sure we’re ready,” she said. “It’s more concern about yourself doing a good job instead of making them sound like they’re doing a bad job.”

And, try asking questions — kindly — that get to the root of any resistance.

It can be helpful to point out that the anxieties are not just about whether money is being handled correctly, but also to ensure that the government is not going to get a bigger bite of any inheritance than necessary.

For example, the father of one of Dr. McClanahan’s clients had 60 stock certificates in a locked box, “which would have been a huge probate nightmare,” she said. She convinced him to move the stocks into a custodial brokerage account, so each stock would not have to be probated separately. They are also easier to keep track of that way and require far less paperwork.

He also was going to make his children the beneficiaries of his Individual Retirement Account and give money to charity, but, for tax purposes, it made much more sense to do it the other way around, she said. An heir would have to pay taxes on distributions from the retirement account, but the charity would not, while the cash would go to the children without any taxes to be paid.

But if a conversation doesn’t work, Dr. McClanahan suggested asking whether the parent would be willing to have an objective third person involved, preferably a financial planner who charges an hourly fee, not a commission and is a fiduciary. The planner can keep that information confidential until the incapacitation or death of the parent, when the planner can share the information with an appointed family member.

“You can offer three names, and then leave it with the parent for a while,” Ms. Locker said about choosing the third person. “The parent needs to process and not feel pressured to do something.”

Of course, it is not a surprise that certified financial planners would suggest hiring a planner, but “you definitely want someone who has expertise in this,” said Ms. Weston, who has written books on finance, but does not see clients. “The financial planner has hopefully been through this a lot and may have thought of scenarios you haven’t thought of.”

And financial planners often hold meetings jointly with the children and the parents, finessing the situation. For example, Ms. Alonso said, her father worked at General Electric, and all their stocks were with that company.

“My dad was a G.E. company man to the T,” she said. “My mom felt if she sold off the stocks, it would be crushing the memory of my dad.”

But then Dr. McClanahan, who was the financial planner first for Ms. Alonso and then for her mother, “gradually got her to understand diversifying and how the stock market has changed since the ’70s.”

Dr. McClanahan added that, in an ideal world, people will not wait until their declining years to bring their children into their financial picture; she co-founded, Whealthcare Planning, with the idea of helping people plan for the financial challenges of aging. Among other things, it provides interactive assessments of one’s knowledge of their own finances and helps evaluate those at risk for poor financial decision-making. The cost starts at $39 annually.

In some cases, knowing more about finances can help alleviate an anxious parents’ fear that they will run out of money or will not be able to leave an inheritance. In other cases, it can stave off disaster.

Ryan Patterson of Austin, Texas, said he was concerned that his parents, who live in San Antonio, might not really understand their long-term financial picture.

They are in their early 70s, facing serious health issues and clearly worried about money, he said, but it was hard to ask for help. The catalyst, he said, was when his father, who is a percussionist in the San Antonio Symphony, inherited his parents’ home and wanted to discuss how to invest the money when he sold it. He turned to his elder son.

Mr. Patterson knew what problems could arise as parents age. He helped to support his grandmother, who had no understanding of her finances when her husband died, or “even how she would pay the bills the next month. I didn’t want that to happen with my parents,” he said.

When they finally all sat down together, Mr. Patterson, who is chief executive of SeniorAdvice.com, a senior housing locator, realized there could be a real shortfall in the future if they did not act soon.

“There was never an intention to live beyond their means, but some things slipped through the cracks,” he added.

Mr. Patterson, 42, has a six-month-old son; he is confident his own finances are in order, he said. “I want to make sure my son is never in a position where he has to take care of me.”



When she learned her classmates couldn't swim, this teen started giving free lessons

"I just assumed that everyone knew how to swim," said Sylvie Goldner, a competitive swimmer and high school junior: Sylvie Goldner has loved the water since she was a little kid. Now she's teaching other teens how to swim through her after-school program, First Strokes.

By Rheana Murray

Sylvie Goldner was shocked when she learned that many of her classmates at her prestigious New York City high school had no idea how to swim.

After all, Goldner, 16, is a competitive swimmer who recalls loving the water as a baby. She started taking swimming lessons in the second grade and is now a member of a club team in Manhattan.

"I just assumed that everyone knew how to swim," Goldner said.

So when a few classmates asked her if she was willing to teach them, she said yes. And earlier this year, Goldner launched an after-school program called First Strokes to make it official. She rents lane space at a fitness center near her school and offers free swim lessons to New York City students — so far, most of them are her classmates, but Goldner hopes to soon expand throughout New York City and eventually to other cities, too.

Goldner and fellow teacher, Danielle George, help high school freshman Sadia Ibnat float in the pool during a recent lesson.

For many of her peers, the idea of taking swim lessons with little kids is embarrassing. So Goldner's classes are exclusively for high school students, and they're taught by high school students, too. "Because I'm their peer, it's much less intimidating," she said. (Goldner is the primary teacher, but some friends from her swim team are starting to help, too.)

More than a quarter of New York City students said they don't know how to swim, according to the latest city data from 2017.

Goldner, who spoke to TODAY Style as part of our Groundbreakers series for International Day of the Girl, knows that socioeconomic status plays a factor. Swimming lessons are expensive. Black and Hispanic children are less likely to know how to swim than white children, according to a 2008 survey from USA Swimming.

Goldner tries to show her students that the water isn't a scary place. "I go to a super diverse public school and a lot of the kids, their parents are immigrants and they've never learned how to swim, so they never teach their kids how to swim and this fear is passed down," Goldner said.

"There's water surrounding us everywhere and to not have water safety skills is ridiculous, and it's a real hazard," she added.

For many of the teens she teaches, learning how to swim is a particularly special achievement. The same way many of them will be the first from their families to go to college, they'll be the first to learn how to swim, too, she said. Goldner has only been teaching lessons since March, but she's already seeing success stories. One of her students had never been able to join his friends in the lake at the camp he goes to every summer. But this year, after Goldner taught him how to swim, he got to swim with his friends for the first time, she said.

While Goldner doesn't have any previous teaching experience, she's logged plenty of hours in the pool and is a certified lifeguard.

"I did get a book all about how to teach swim lessons, but just being in the water every day, it comes super easily," she said.

She starts by addressing her classmates' fear of the water.

"I had a few students who started shaking and trembling the first time they got in the water. It's scary for them!" she said. "So in the beginning, it's all about showing them how the water is a place of fun and there's nothing to be scared of. Then we start getting into skills."

Earlier this year, Goldner raised more than $7,000 through a fundraising website to pay for lane space at the fitness center and purchase caps and goggles for her students. Her goal is to offer lessons every day of the week, but she knows she'll need more teachers and more money to do so. Her parents have been helpful, and so has her school — her principal sends email blasts to make sure students know about the lessons. Goldner has also reached out to the New York City Department of Education to inquire about potential funding and partnerships.

But for now, she'll start her next session in October, teaching one class a week. And she'll keep trying to spread her love of the water to other young people, one stroke at a time.



Longevity and Retirement: 8 Great Habits to Rock Life as You Age

Roger Whitney

You are your habits. Every single one of us has habits that impact our lives, but they’re not always good ones. Smoking cigarettes is a habit, after all, and so is watching television for hours on end. These bad habits can prevent us from reaching our potential, but they can also cut our lives short.

Of course, the opposite is also true. The good, positive habits many of us have — habits like exercising regularly, eating nutritious meals, and meditating — can make our lives better in immeasurable ways. This is especially true if you’re old enough to see why habits matter but still young enough to make your positive habits count.

As you age, you will rely on your habits more and more. As our physical and mental abilities ebb and flow with age, our habits takeover as an autopilot. Build great habits and those will be the autopilot you’ll rely upon to remain healthy, active, and engaged.

Here’s a good example of positive habits at work: Recently on my retirement podcast, we profiled a listener who was navigating a health crisis (her husband had cancer). You can hear her resilience radiate during the show. Their habit of being proactive has helped them continue to live even with the difficult situation. The couple loves cycling, but his condition has made him weak. But with the aid of an electric mountain bike, he is still able to hit the trails. That attitude has served them well.

Build poor habits and your autopilot can lead you to a constant struggle to maintain altitude. Here I think of an older client named “Roxanne” who smoked for decades, never exercised, and has a poor relationship with her children. Roxanne is now a widow in her early 80’s who struggles to get out of bed every day. Her bad habits dictate how she sees the world and her view of the power she has in it.

The Best Habits to Help You Live Well in Retirement

If you’re in your 50’s or 60’s, you may have twenty, thirty, or even forty-plus years of retirement ahead of you. This simple fact means that the habits you’re able to pick up and stick with could make a marked difference on your physical health once you enter the final stretch of your life on this planet. When it comes to your longevity, also consider recent research published in the Journal Circulation which shows that around 60% of early deaths can be attributed to lifestyle factors, including those bad habits we talked about. Based on my observation, even if someone doesn’t die early from their bad habits, their joy in life is diminished. To put it more bluntly, they live just as long but don’t get to enjoy life the way the rest of us do.

On my retirement podcast, I am constantly talking about how retirement shouldn’t be about survival — it should be about thriving and enjoying life during a season when you have the time — and hopefully the money — to live the way you want.

Longevity may be the underlying goal, but what about the quality of your existence? Even if you’ve had not-so-great habits in the past, now is the time to establish good ones. Here are some habits that could lengthen your lifespan and help you rock your retirement now and later:

Regular Exercise

Plenty of research shows that regular, vigorous exercise is crucial when it comes to maintaining your physical health as you age. This means you should go out of your way to take part in difficult, uncomfortable exercise that feels like work. In other words, you aren’t helping yourself that much if you hop on the treadmill and watch The Price is Right while you walk at a snail’s pace.

In addition to strength and endurance training, your exercise habit should also include stretching. In my eyes, stretching is a lot like flossing because everyone knows they should do it but few people actually do.

The less flexible you are, the more likely you are to fall, break your hip, and wind up in a nursing home like Aunt Karen. Make sure you’re exercising and stretching your body because that’s the best way to protect yourself against preventable injuries and the physical signs of aging.

Do Something Meaningful

Having a purpose in life may be more important than people realize, but your “purpose” doesn’t have to be something over-the-top or mind-blowing. For some people, their purpose is being an awesome grandparent, volunteering for an organization that matters to them and hardly anyone else, or maybe even learning a skill like woodworking or gardening. It doesn’t matter so much what your purpose is as long as you have one.

On the flip side, not having a purpose can lead to bad habits that can affect your longevity and your mood. Think of it this way: When you have nothing to do, you might wind up sitting in front of the tube all day, or worse, diving into the pointless void of social media.

Train Your Mind

As you get older, training your mind is just as important as training your body. Your body carries you around, but your mind also needs training to stay in great shape.

Constantly learn and challenge yourself so you can stay sharp and potentially even avoid diseases like dementia. While brain-engaging activities like Sudoku or puzzles can help, learning anything can make a positive impact.

Consider this: Research analyzed by John Hopkins Medicine recently showed that staying in school longer reduced the prevalence of dementia in the United States, particularly among those ages 65 and older.

Maintain a Healthy Weight

Eat well and pay attention to the food you’re putting in your body. Take special care to consume foods that support your mental health and spiritual well-being while staying away from empty calories and foods that make you feel unwell. (I’m looking at you, refined sugar!)

A recent article from Catharine Paddock, Ph.D. in Medical News Today also suggests keeping your body mass index (BMI) under 25% if possible.

Cultivate a Positive Mental Attitude

If your glass half full or half empty? Your current outlook on life can play a huge role in how well your mind and body hold up. According to a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, people who embrace positive stereotypes about aging are more likely to recover from a disability.

Improve Your Mood

Depression and anxiety can become rampant as we age. Do anything you can to improve your mood whether that includes exercise or stimulating mental activities. Go for walks in the park, get back out in the dating scene, or volunteer for a cause you love — or basically anything that will make you feel better about yourself and the world.

Stay Social

If you don’t have an expansive social network, you may wind up having one by default — your family. This can be a good thing if your family members are happy and successful, but not so much if they aren’t.

If you find your default social network is overly negative, look for ways to build a new one. Try to make friends with younger people who may have different interests than you, and be sure you continue cultivating friendships you already have or may have had in the past.

Remember: Who you allow in your inner circle matters just as much as who you don’t allow.

Own Your Life

Finally, take steps to be a participant in life, not a spectator. Stay out and about instead of sitting at home and watching the world pass you by.

This can be a difficult feat in today’s internet age where we can see what other people are doing on the hour without even leaving the couch. But sitting on the sidelines won’t help you maintain optimal physical or mental health.

Make sure you’re not just watching other people’s stories; get out and create your own.