When Iola Pryma was told she needed to have a lung biopsy to investigate the tumours a CT scan revealed, one of the first things she did was make her daughter, Kandis Pryma, her power of attorney for her finances. A 71-year-old widow, Pryma knew that in the event of a long recovery — or worse — she would feel much better checking into the hospital knowing that her finances were in order.

This family was lucky. In this case, the parent was able to make this decision on her own and guide her daughter through her financial portfolio and banking information without suspicion or embarrassment.

But many families aren’t so lucky, says Mara Osis, president of ElderWise, a Calgary-based company that coaches families on topics relating to aging parents.

Some adult children are thrust into looking after a parent’s finances after a stroke or a heart attack or the onset of dementia, and can find themselves hunting through filing cabinets for the right documents and discovering investments or debts for the first time. Others find their hands tied when it comes to making medical decisions, not knowing their parents’ wishes.

If you are, or soon will be, caring for elderly parents, there are things you can do to help make this process easier.

Have the talk about elder care

Have this discussion sooner rather than later. While it’s a depressing and daunting topic, it’s much better to have an open conversation when everyone’s healthy, than a more difficult one later on. “The longer you wait, the older everyone is and the more likelihood that some other factors — particularly around health — will get in the way,” Osis says.

Be empathetic

This is a discussion that needs to be handled with care. It will likely need to follow the 80/20 rule. “80% of the conversation will be about emotion, while the other 20% will be about what needs to be done,” says Osis. “It’s not uncommon for parents to enter into a grieving mode when having these discussions. They may be grieving the end of a career, the loss of a spouse or a friend, the aches and pains of their physical abilities that are starting to fail, or just the progression into a new stage in life. It’s important for children to remember this and not go into the conversation with the attitude of ‘just get it done.’”

Information checklist for elder care

Take these steps now, to avoid having to scramble later:

  • Find out where important documents are kept, including social insurance numbers, insurance papers, RRIFs, investments, banking information, wills and medical and pharmacy records.
  • Know where safety deposit keys are stored.
  • Compile a list of key contacts including doctors, lawyers, insurance providers and financial advisors.
  • Find out whether your parent has long-term care insurance, which can help pay for care in the home or in a long-term care facility, should your parent become ill and unable to handle activities of daily life such as bathing, dressing or feeding himself or herself, without assistance.

When a stressful situation arises, having easy access to this information will ease some of the worry.

Set up a power of attorney

Ask your parent to designate someone to be given power of attorney for finances, as well as a durable power of attorney or healthcare directive for personal care. This will allow for important financial and health-related decisions to be made on your parent’s behalf, without delay. “This is as important as having a will,” Osis says. “If your parent does not give you power of attorney, you cannot automatically act for him or her, which can be devastating to the family. Essentially, without this document, decisions can be taken out of the family’s hands and put into the hands of a public guardian.”

Once the power of attorney is set up, talk about what your parent would want to happen if the time ever comes when he or she is unable to make decisions — everything from “do not resuscitate” orders to feelings about nursing homes. Also, consider opening a joint bank account that keeps a pool of funds available for immediate needs, should the time arise. A joint bank account is also useful if you have to take on the responsibility for seeing that your parent’s bills are paid.

Ask for help

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Managing your elderly parents’ health and financial care can put a strain on your family, and can affect your own savings strategy. Meet with your financial advisor to make sure that both you and your parents are on the right track, and to discuss whether long-term care insurance might be a good addition to your own retirement plans, so you will have more options available when you reach your parents’ age.