Time for “The Talk”

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Transitioning to retirement living can be as much of a challenge for families as it is for their elders. Photo by Jeff Sheldon. 

First, there’s “the talk”—the one that involves clumsy metaphors about things with wings, hair in unusual places, strange sensations, denied urges, accepting responsibility.  You both—parent and child—make it through the conversation, with all of its fits and starts and no small amount of embarrassment.  A few years pass, the winds shift and another big discussion looms.  This one, too, can involve hair in unusual places (like the ears).  But it also marks the moment roles reverse, when the child must make sure the parent is preparing responsibly for the future.

This is the time when words like “medical directives” and “assisted living” enter our vocabulary.  These words can be hard to voice because they are packed with fear of the unknown—and some measure of guilt for those of us contemplating our parents’ mortality.  But the conversation can signal a threshold families can cross together, with a clear-eyed plan to handle anything that comes next.

Breaking the Ice

Reid Williamson, a partner in estates and trusts at Hunter Maclean, recommends having “the talk” sooner rather than later.  One way to bring it up, he says, is to get your own affairs in order.

“People can have misfortunes at any time in life—in their twenties, thirties or forties.  It’s not a topic you want to talk about on a daily basis … but you can say, ‘I’m doing this; have y’all done the same?’  Ask [your parents] for their advice.”  In doing so, you’re likely to learn their preferences—and how far they’ve gotten in the process.

Allison Adams, executive director of Summer Breeze Senior Living on Wilmington Island, agrees.

“My parents are not even in their sixties, and I’ve already had that conversation.”

Legal Ease

According to Williamson, psychology tells us that people are really good at remembering sets of three things.  Fortunately, there are three essential documents everyone needs to have in place: a last will and testament, a power of attorney and an advanced directive for healthcare.

“A will takes care of your property after your death,” Williamson explains.  “The power of attorney and the advanced directive for healthcare will take care of matters while you are still alive.  The power of attorney will authorize somebody else to handle your financial affairs—your money, your assets—if you’re unable to do so.  The advanced directive … allows somebody else to take care of your body if you’re unable to speak your wishes to your healthcare providers.”

If you don’t have these legal documents in place, Williamson says, there is a remedy for that situation.  “Georgia has a plan in place for you whether you know it or not,”  but, he warns, it’s expensive, time-consuming and runs all of your affairs through the court system.

Living Conditions

As sensitive as it can be to discuss matters of life and death, some of the most emotional decisions around retirement center on where to live.  Often, adult children have a very hard time with the idea of their parents selling the childhood home and looking for some place easier to manage.

“It is truly an emotional roller coaster,” says Amy Blevins, marketing and sales director for the five-star-rated Marshes at Skidaway Island, a licensed, nonprofit Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC).  “My best advice is to erase any pre-existing notions anyone has about retirement homes and assisted living … and have gentle conversations, spouse to spouse, parent to child.  It does no good to hide from the calendar.”

Both Adams and Blevins urge families to begin the search while parents are still active and healthy, and to keep the focus on helping them make choices they feel good about.

“Don’t pressure them,” Adams cautions.  “Ask questions, listen and tour properties.”

Blevins, who has helped nine family members around the country find retirement living communities, suggests thinking of communities in terms of “must-haves, wants, influences and ideal locations.”  She recommends criteria that consider finances (what parents can comfortably afford), government ratings and licenses, year-round weather, access to transportation, the desired lifestyle and important activities.

Life of the Mind

Bloomberg Businessweek named Savannah as one of America’s best affordable places to retire because of many of the attributes listed on Blevins’ checklist.  But it’s the educational and cultural activities for seniors that often set Savannah apart.

“At first you think, ‘Freedom!’ then you think, ‘Now what?’” Patti Lyons observes from her work with new retirees.  “I think staying engaged is the key to staying out there.”

Lyons, the president of the unique-to-Savannah nonprofit Senior Citizens Inc. (SCI), enthusiastically describes the “golden years” as one of the most exciting, intellectually stimulating times in life.  “You finally have the time to pursue your passions and interests.”

In addition to adult day care, field trips, Meals on Wheels, and caregiver support, SCI hosts The Learning Center—a liberal arts, college-style series of educational offerings that range from coastal Georgia history and memoir writing to foreign policy discussions and organized trips abroad to places such as France, Italy, Prague and Israel.

“The intellectual caliber of The Learning Center and its warmth open up a world of possibilities,” Lyons says.

Considering the possibilities—now, that’s a great way to start a conversation.