How to Have a Financial Intervention—for Your Aging Parent
Discussing finances with aging family members can be fraught—as my siblings and I learned during a recent emergency “intervention” with our dad—but it’s important for everyone’s mental health to get it done. Here’s how to sidestep the drama and avoid the many mistakes that my family made.
So your parent needs a financial intervention. That’s exactly what I googled when it became clear that my father was perched on the edge of a major financial disaster. At 74, he was on a trip he absolutely couldn’t afford—maxed out credit cards, zero money in the bank, calls from abroad requesting funds—and he nearly lost his car insurance, professional liability insurance and the electricity in his house in the same week. Something needed to be done.
One Tuesday evening last summer, two of my siblings and I arrived at our dad’s house ready to issue ultimatums and armed with letters explaining how his financial and behavioural recklessness was negatively impacting both his well-being and our own.
I’ve since learned that there are more advisable ways to tackle tricky money stuff with your family than our admittedly confrontational intervention approach—if, that is, you can get the conversation started. Here’s how to prevent a very stressful “Dad, we need to talk” sort of talk.
(Related: 3 Smart Ways to Manage Your Money Better)
Image: Ally Jaye Reeves
My father has never been good with money. And while last summer’s ill-conceived trip and the ensuing financial meltdown seemed to warrant it, one big, tense conversation wasn’t going to magically make him a “good with money” guy. But it did pry open a topic people are typically very proficient at keeping bottled up.
“Money is a touchy subject,” says Neela White, a portfolio manager and elder-planning counsellor in Toronto. So touchy, in fact, that nearly two-thirds of Canadians with parents over the age of 65 haven’t touched it at all, according to a 2017 CIBC poll—and by that I mean that they haven’t had a conversation about finances with their parents, most often because they don’t want to appear disrespectful. “No parent wants to feel like they’re the ones being parented,” says White. “You have to ease into it.”
Makes sense. Unfortunately, that’s not what we did. We—my sister, brother and I—went in like a three-pronged battering ram. (Some prongs were more willing than others. My brother, with good reason, called it the “sistervention.”) But, in our defense, we were at a crisis point.
You don’t have to be in my dad’s situation to feel that money is impacting your mental health and stress levels. A 2018 Leger report found that 25 percent of Canadian seniors were worried they’ll run out of money before they die. By 2021, an overwhelming 77 percent of Canadians nearing retirement (or in early retirement) were worried about their financial security, according to a report by the National Institute on Ageing. With inflation and market downturns that are devouring nest eggs, older adults who have always been financially secure might suddenly be feeling less so.
“For people on a fixed income, the money they saved is now worth less,” says Laura Tamblyn Watts, founder, president and CEO of CanAge, a seniors’ advocacy organization. “That’s leading to uncomfortable choices for people who’ve never had to make them before, like whether to eat or to pay for heat.” In 2021, over a third of seniors who rent or pay a mortgage had trouble covering their bills, and in 2022, food bank use by older adults was up across the country.
So the money that people have saved—if they’ve had enough income to save—isn’t stretching as far. Another problem is that many Canadians are simply living longer than they, or their financial planners, expected. “Most people will save for 20 or 25 years of retirement, when in reality it could be more like 30 or even 40 years,” says Vancouver financial therapist and money coach Brenda St. Louis. “That’s a whole other lifetime.”
As my dad often says, he didn’t expect to live this long. (He’s not that old, but I think what he’s really saying is, “I never thought I’d have to be accountable.”) He also didn’t anticipate being single for the first time in his 70s, after a lifetime of cohabitational relationships.
According to Mary Ann Marriott, a licenced insolvency trustee based in Fredericton who helps people navigate difficult financial situations, a lot of the people who see her come not because of deep-rooted money issues but after a change in circumstances—like going from two incomes to one. Adapting to monthly deposits (with benefits like the Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security) instead of a biweekly pay schedule can also be hard. “Your entire working life, you’ve been paid every two weeks,” says Marriott, “and all of a sudden you have to manage your money differently.”
The other piece people don’t often plan for is needing long-term care or end-of-life health care. “All of us are guilty of this,” says Neela White. “You think everything’s going to stay the same.” But White has first-hand experience of how quickly life can take a very expensive turn.
Twelve years ago, her father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Then her mother, a five-time cancer survivor, fell and broke her neck, requiring eight hours per day of private care—well beyond the government-provided three hours per week—for the rest of her life. White, who has experience working in long-term care and a degree in gerontology, says her parents believed they were financially prepared for “any kind of health-care crisis.” Still, it wasn’t enough. Her father lived for two years after his diagnosis (he was 89 when he died) and her mother for five years after her accident (she was 87). Between her two parents, and despite all the planning, they spent almost $700,000 on private caregiving alone—not including housing costs, bills, groceries or medications.
White acknowledges that the conversation is not an easy one to start. “It’s money, it’s values, it’s end of life,” she says. “It’s sticky and uncomfortable.” There can also be a generational difference in values—you just don’t talk about money. Pride and shame are a big part of the picture, too. The older clients Marriott sees are often embarrassed to admit they have debt. “But show me where, in the book of life, it says you have to get everything right,” she says.
St. Louis points to yet another hurdle: Older people simply have a lot more practice at avoiding uncomfortable topics. But White urges families to push through the discomfort so they can normalize these types of conversations. “Deal with being uncomfortable now,” she says, “or chaos later.”
Ah, the chaos—I know it well. My father once showed up with a briefcase full of it. During his one-night visit, he wanted to somehow complete two years of back taxes. There were hundreds of pages: property assessments, unopened bills, faded gas receipts, a glazed ham recipe, bank statements from too many accounts to keep track of, insurnace claims, a past-due notice from his accountant and a printout about Canadian plant hardiness zones. I had to dig through it all to find his car insurance, and it felt like peeking into his brain—not a fun or calming place to be. (I did take a photo of the ham recipe, because he is a great cook.) Given the choice, I recommend dealing with whatever’s behind the “uncomfortable now” door, even if it’s as sticky as a glazed ham.
White thinks the past three years of living with COVID—the risks, fears and high stakes, especially for older people—have given us the opportunity to recalibrate our anxiety meters. “People were concerned about dying, or their parents or grandparents dying. If that’s your biggest fear,” she says, “everything else, like talking about money, should be simpler.”
Simple, maybe, but not easy. These conversations still require a certain finesse, and every financial expert I spoke with recommended the same route: Start by talking about someone else.
And because 2023 has been a financial debacle for many of us, that someone else can be you.
“It’s one of the rare good things about a shared economic experience,” says Tamblyn Watts. Runaway prices at the grocery store are an easy in. “You can say something like ‘I used to budget $900 a month and now I have to double it. How are you and Mom doing? Any tips?’” Seniors have weathered more market fluctuations over the years and likely have some solid insight to provide, Tamblyn Watts notes. She describes this approach as coming from a place of “appreciative enquiry.”
St. Louis calls it “going in the side door.” You could talk about the conversations your friends are having with their parents, or how they saved money doing this one thing, or lost money doing another; heck, you could send them this article. “You do it slowly over time,” she says. “Too often, we go to our parents and we want to fix their situation. But it never works that way.”
You don’t say.
Image: Ally Jaye Reeves
After you’ve had the awkward conversation, you might find yourself wondering, “Now what?”
If your loved one is outliving their earnings or savings, the next step is to help identify possible solutions, and not to shame them—after all, their situation is not at all uncommon.
“Most people can’t afford to retire without having a side gig or something to supplement it,” says St. Louis. Half of retirees who worked part-time did so for financial reasons (not just to keep busy), according to 2022 research by Fidelity Investments Canada. And 60 percent of pre-retirees expect to keep working to some degree in retirement.
Tamblyn Watts says there are more options than ever for doing just that. “By now, we all understand about ageism in the workplace, but there’s also a profound labour shortage,” she says. “It’s never been more welcome to have people with experience back in the office.” St. Louis has also seen clients start a side business based on their expertise. “Then there are people who get a cashier job at grocery store,” she says. “Sometimes you just want to be around people twice a week.”
For those of us who can’t—or don’t want to—go back to work, there are options, too. “Listen to a person’s life story,” says Tamblyn Watts, “and think about where the money may be.” Abandoned company pension plans, old bank accounts and new, updated or less well-known government programs and tax benefits (such as survivor allowances, home renovation credits and disability credits) are all good places to start.
Then there’s the big one: downsizing. “This is a pain point for everyone, because a house is emotional. It’s more than just four walls and a roof,” acknowledges Neela White. But thinking about how much space you’re heating and maintaining—versus how much space you actually use—can drive the point home. “With the residual pool of money, you can rent or even buy, and still have a nest egg leftover,” she says.
That’s the path my family is currently on. My father is talking about selling his place this summer, though I have no idea if that will actually come to pass. (Remember that briefcase of chaos? Just imagine the house.) But he’s talking about it, I think, at least partly due to our, um, vigorous involvement last year. We honestly thought our dad would lose it when we confronted him. And, to his credit, he didn’t. Against all professional advice (or so I learned after the fact), we followed a traditional intervention model, so we each read a letter that started with a statement of love. Sure, he liked hearing that stuff—but it was more the relief he clearly felt at not having to confront his financial chaos in the dark, all by himself. “I didn’t know how to bring it up,” he said as we were leaving his place.
That’s the piece that Brenda St. Louis is most interested in tackling with her clients. “Let’s take money out of the closet,” she says. “Let’s remove the shame and just start talking about it.”
This is something we’re inching toward. My father hasn’t become a “good with money” guy yet—and he may never. But we sure wedged open that closet door.