Helping Elderly Parents: The Complete Guide

Stephanie Booth


Aging is a natural part of life, but that doesn’t mean that you instinctively know how to help a parent who is getting older. 

It can be hard to view the people who’ve always taken care of you as suddenly needing your help. Caring for elderly parents can also mean a lot of different things. It’s not just giving them an arm to hold onto as they maneuver down a set of icy steps, but knowing when and how to assist them with their finances, legal issues, estate planning, health decisions, and even end-of-life matters. 

This article will serve as a guide to help you understand the important role you can play in assisting your aging parents and where (and when and how) you can start.

Key Takeaways

  • Think about how you bring up financial and legal matters with your parents.

  • Get some practical strategies in place while your aging parents are of sound mind and before you truly need them.

  • Know the legal tools that can help you manage and protect your parents’ finances.

  • Understand the experts and resources that can support you.

Make life easier with Trustworthy

Organize, optimize, and protect your important family information so you are prepared for all of life’s moments.

Having “the” talk with your elderly parents

Finances naturally become harder for all of us to manage as we get older. That can be tricky since there are so many decisions about money to make — everything from which bills need to be paid to whether it’s time to sell off stocks.

When is the best time to talk to your parents about their money matters and who should help them out? Sooner than you think — ideally when your aging parents are still able to competently and independently manage their own finances

You can start these conversations many different ways. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • “I know this might be hard to talk about, but I care about you and want to make sure you’re taken care of. Can we find a time to discuss some plans for the future and how I can help you?”

  • “I’ve noticed ____ and I’m a little concerned.”

  • “I want you to keep enjoying the things you love. Can we talk about how I can help you do that?”

Remember that your parents will likely need some time to process your offer of assistance. Talking about getting older is often emotional, and no one likes to feel like they’re losing independence. 

When your parents do agree to chat, propose a non-hectic time and a quiet place where you can talk uninterrupted. (Not, say, their grandchild’s fifth birthday at the trampoline gym.)

This likely won’t be a “one and done” talk, but an ongoing conversation. If your parents’ current situation allows, communicating one step at a time (“This week, let’s make a list of everything that’s in your safe deposit box”) may be a smoother strategy than asking them to do or decide many things at once.

Make an action plan to care for elderly parents

Every big project or set of responsibilities is less intimidating when you break it down into small steps. If you’re a checklist type of person, here’s an overview of what you’ll need to do to get your elderly parents’ finances in order.

Start a file of your parents’ important papers

This file should include:

  • Their birth and marriage certificates

  • Any other legal certificates (like citizenship, divorce, or adoption)

  • Social security numbers

  • Health and life insurance policies

  • Military veteran records

  • Names and phone numbers of friends, doctors, lawyers, relatives and religious contacts

  • The bills they pay (mortgage, property tax, insurance, utilities, etc.)

  • Sources of income and assets (like pension from their employer, IRAs, 401Ks, interest, etc.)

  • Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid info

  • Names of banks and their account numbers (including PINs)

  • Investment accounts (including contact info for each institution)

  • Copy of their most recent tax return

  • Original deed of trust for their home

  • Car title and registration

  • Credit card names, numbers, and contact info

Gathering and organizing all this information can be very difficult, particularly with the other responsibilities of caring for elderly parents. We are here to help. Trustworthy is a single, safe place to organize and manage your parents’ important information. You can rest easy knowing their sensitive information is protected and available whenever you need it.

Create a payment schedule. 

In the event that you’ll need to start taking over your parents’ bills, knowing ahead of time what needs to be paid and when will make the transition much smoother.

You can use the custom reminders feature in Trustworthy to make sure you never miss a due date or pay a late fee. 

Make an inventory of your parents’ safe deposit box, if they have one. 

Remember to bring them, or another witness, with you.

Gather the legal documents you may need. 

  • Power of Attorney

  • Living Trust

  • Advanced Directive

  • Will

If you’re not familiar with these documents, we’ve got you covered. Keep reading for more specifics.

Consider the additional people you can turn to for support.

Depending on your parents’ and your needs, you may want to add professionals to your team. These professionals may include:

  • Financial planner, advisor, or accountant

  • Estate planning attorney 

  • Wills attorney

  • Trust administration attorney

  • Notary public (a person licensed by the state to witness signatures). 

  • Other witnesses to sign specific documents

If you have siblings, keep them updated as you work through these steps. Coordination and transparency as you begin to assist your parents will likely help stave off confusion or conflict down the line.

Trustworthy makes the communication process seamless and easy. Add the necessary people as collaborators into the account and you can also limit category specific access for each individual.  

Add a new collaborator screen in Trustworthy
Add a new collaborator in Trustworthy.

Legal tools to protect your elderly parents

A few legal documents are really crucial to have in place when you’re trying to help your parents later in life. Some of these documents can be created online (and for free), although many people find it extremely helpful to enlist a lawyer’s help.

When your parents or their professionals have completed their legal documents, you can store copies of them in Trustworthy so they are always easy to access. 

Here are the legal documents that should be top of mind:

Power of Attorney (POA)

A POA allows you to act on your parents’ behalf. It’s a powerful document and comes in a few different forms.

Health Care Power of Attorney (HCPOA) 

Also called a “health care proxy,” this document allows you to make medical care decisions for your parents at the point that they become unable to make them for themselves.

Financial Power of Attorney (FPOA) 

A FPOA legally authorizes you to manage the legal and financial obligations of your parents, like signing their checks, depositing Social Security checks, and managing their investments. It only goes into effect if your parents are unable to take care of these responsibilities themselves, and you are expected to carry out their wishes to the best of your ability.

FPOAs can also be general, limited, or durable and those differences are important to note.

General powers of attorney 

General powers of attorney convey broad legal authority. With a general POA, you’ll be able to handle all your parents’ legal and financial matters.

Limited powers of attorney 

Limited POAs only allow you to act on behalf of your parents in a specific capacity or for a finite amount of time. (For instance, your parents could authorize you to sell their house.) 

Durable powers of attorney 

Unlike other types of POAs, durable powers of attorney don’t automatically end if your parent becomes physically or mentally incapacitated. A DPOA allows you to continue acting as your parents’ “agent” in the event of a health crisis. That said, it only allows you to make financial decisions for them, not medical decisions. 

POAs are accepted in all U.S. states, but the rules and requirements may differ in each. Make sure you know the options available to your parents in the state where they live.

Living Trust 

This estate planning tool allows you or another designated trustee to manage your parent’s assets and transfer them to beneficiaries after their death. But unlike a will, which wouldn’t go into effect until after your parents pass away, a living trust is immediately effective.

To be covered by the terms of a living trust, assets must be assigned to it. That can include:

  • Personal property (like jewelry, artwork, or antiques)

  • Financial accounts (like checking and savings accounts, life insurance policies, and safe deposit boxes)

  • Real estate (like land, homes, and commercial properties)

One asset that shouldn’t go in a living trust? A 401K or IRA. Changing the ownership structure of either of those accounts will flag it to the IRS as an early withdrawal, triggering a tax bill (and possible financial penalty.)

Like POAs, there are different types of living trusts. The two terms you’ll need to know are “revocable” and “irrevocable.”

  • A revocable living trust may be the most common. In this format, your parents (otherwise known as the “grantors”) are able to maintain control over all the assets they place in the trust by first designating themselves as the “trustees.” In that role, they have the power to change the rules of the trust at any time. Only when they become unable to control or protect their assets will you, or another designated successor trustee, step in.

  • An irrevocable living trust establishes the trust itself as the owner of assets. As the grantors, your parents would need to give up certain rights of control. You, or another trusted family member who’s designated as the trustee, would become the lawful owner of the items placed in the trust. 

Living Will 

This advanced directive allows your parents to think about the end-of-life care they would like. What treatments would they prefer if they permanently lose consciousness? What would they choose to happen if their death is unavoidable?

Some treatments that can be addressed in a living will include:

  • If your parent wants the use of equipment (like a dialysis machine or ventilator) to keep them alive 

  • If they want fluids (by IV or feeding tube) to keep them alive if they are unable to eat or drink on their own

  • If they want treatment for pain, nausea, or other symptoms (ie, palliative care) if they can’t make these decisions on their own

  • If they want “do not resuscitate” orders, in which CPR will not be used if their breathing or heartbeat stops

  • If they want to donate their organs or other tissues after death

Living will laws differ from state to state. If your parents spend time in more than one location, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with laws in both areas. Some states stipulate how often living wills need to be updated, so take note of that as well.

Last Will and Testament

Here’s the legal document you’re probably most familiar with, at least in name. A will allows the “testator” (in this case, your parents) to decide how their estate will be managed after death.

Don’t let the word “estate” intimidate you. Even if your parents don’t own a lot of monetary assets, a will can consider other items of importance to them — like who will take care of their beloved cat or which family member gets their cherished grandfather clock. It can also empower an executor to pay off debts.

Urge each of your parents to draft their own will, since a number of states do not recognize joint wills. If they need encouragement to draft these documents, you might explain that if they pass on without them, their belongings will be disbursed according to the laws of the state where they live. This process, called “probate,” can be time-consuming, not to mention stressful for remaining family members. (Especially if that aforementioned cat is involved.)

Experts who can help

The good news? There’s a lot you can do to help your aging parents. Even better? You don’t have to do it all alone. Many experts and organizations are available to support you as you make arrangements and get their financial and legal matters in order.

For instance:

Tips for caring for elderly parents

The majority of Americans live well into their 70s — and many happily live decades past that. As time goes by, you can expect your role as your aging parents’ protector to change, and perhaps become more complex.

Here are some things you can do to minimize your stress as your elderly parents’ financial and legal caregiver.

Be patient

We all need time to get used to change. Let your aging parents know that by accepting your help, they’re actually helping you. A recent study found that reframing things this way can actually make it easier for aging people to relinquish some control.

Keep records

If you have power of attorney for your parents, you’re required by law to keep detailed records. Consider sharing them with other trusted family members, since being transparent — and keeping others up-to-date — can really help minimize family friction.

Don’t try to do everything yourself

Use the resources you have at your disposal. It can be hard to ask for help, but consider delegating some tasks to family members, asking friends to refer you to a lawyer or financial advisor they trust, or setting boundaries or practicing self-care when you’re starting to feel overwhelmed. 

Trustworthy can help. Once you gather all these important documents to help your aging parents, you’ll need one safe place to store them all — and have them at the ready.