What’s More Difficult to Talk About Than Sex? Money! By Dr. Barbara Okun

[ 0 ] April 5, 2011 |

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Psychotherapists know that most people have more difficulty talking about money than they do about sex. To make matters worse, it seems that this reluctance to talk about money is even stronger among older people.

Many of today’s senior citizens, for example, were raised at a time when finances were not openly discussed within families – when children had no idea how much money their parents earned, how much they saved, or even if they had any investments. In some traditional families, a stay-at-home wife may not even have known her husband’s income. So naturally, many of these same seniors hesitate today to share financial information with their adult children. Yet as more Americans enter into retirement and well beyond (thanks to advances in medicine), it becomes ever more important for their adult offspring to have some information about the realities of their parents’ financial circumstances. For many, however, the prospect of doing this is daunting.

Here are some snapshots of the stories we heard while preparing to write Saying Goodbye: How Families Can Find Renewal through Loss:

  • “I have no idea if my parents can afford their lifestyle now that they are retiring. Am I going to have to contribute to their support?” asks a 37-year-old attorney with a young family of his own.
  • “I don’t know whether to share my financial status with all of my children or just with the one I trust the most,” bemoans a 78-year-old widow recently diagnosed with cancer.
  • “I’m so upset with my niece who told me that she and her sister do not want me to travel anymore because I should save my money for them,” reported a distraught widow in her 80s.

First Steps

Because of the sheer emotional power surrounding this issue, the first step we recommend to seniors and their families is to consult with a professional (accountant, financial adviser) to get a good idea of what exactly is in their estate (assets, investments) and whether these can be better protected. Then they need to account for their debts, bills, and other ongoing expenses to get an idea of what they are likely to need as annual income. These days, the former (assets) can be difficult to pin down because the unstable economy has hurt many seniors’ finances. Also, unanticipated medical expenses can wreak havoc with respect to financial planning. That said, seniors can still let their adult offspring know, at least in rough terms, what their financial status is and what it will likely be in the future.


What is more important: That seniors be able to support themselves without becoming a financial burden on their adult children, or that they leave as large an estate as possible when they die? From our point of view, the former wins – hands down. Families must face the new reality: That death is less and less a sudden event, and more and more a process that goes on for years. Therefore, the need to be realistic and careful about their lifestyle and financial choices becomes the paramount responsibility facing seniors. This may well mean that in their retirement, elder parents will of necessity be less generous with their financial contributions to their children and grandchildren.

Opening the Conversation

The great majority of adult children we interviewed told us they were unwilling to initiate a discussion of finances with their parents, even if their parents were dying. We believe, therefore, that it is better for seniors to open this conversation. This can be done in the context of an informal family meeting (with refreshments served!).

Ways of starting a discussion of the above might include opening statements such as:

  • We/I want you to know what our/my financial circumstances are so you don’t have to worry
  • We/I have collected some information about our financial circumstances and we/I want to share what our concerns are so we can decide together how to proceed…
  • We/I want to share with you what our future plans are and are interested in hearing your thoughts about them…

The best way to prepare for these conversations is by doing the homework we advocate, including having a professional financial planner on your team. In addition, it can be useful to give some thought to possible reactions and responses from adult children, and prepare strategies to remain calm and clear even if emotions run high. For example, in interviewing families we learned that an awareness of sibling dynamics – roles, competition, etc… can help ease sibling conflict by the timing and manner in which parents initiate these conversations. If things get really contentious, it can be helpful to call a time-out and reschedule the family meeting at a time when a financial adviser or counselor can be there to keep the conversation on track (talking about seniors’ finances and future plans), as opposed to side issues (who always felt less favored, etc…)

In the most extreme cases, where the conversation completely breaks down, parents can still communicate to their adult children. For example, in one family, the most estranged offspring demanded that she be the executor of her parents’ estate and have power of attorney. The parents firmly denied her request and informed her and her brothers that they had appointed a bank official as the executor of their estate so as to insure fairness among the three siblings.

What’s “Fair”?

A frequent issue that arises has to do with “fairness.” Does fairness mean equality? Should an estate be divided equally among offspring even if some have more assets than others? Obviously, each case is different and you can make arguments for different solutions to these dilemmas. What is important is that seniors seek to secure their own future needs first.

If the above conversation never takes place, there is likely to be ongoing anxiety in adult children, as well as potential jealousies and resentments that can lead to estrangement among family members. One of the purposes of talking about money, estate planning and end-of-life issues early on is to strengthen the family system so that issues can be addressed and resolved before it is too late. Post-death loose ends, surprises, and secrets can be very destructive. We have seen many adult children shocked and distraught after a parent’s death because they had been led to believe that their parents’ circumstances were different, or because that parent’s verbal wishes were different from what they had written in their will.

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About Dr. Barbara F. Okun: Dr. Barbara F. Okun is a counseling psychology professor at Northeastern University. She is also a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School and has maintained a clinical psychotherapy/family therapy practice with diverse populations for over [...]
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