Uneasy transition from 'me' to 'we'

Posted: Monday, October 18, 2010

Bill is a bank executive in his 40s whose widowed father is legally blind and just moved in permanently. "It's not what I had planned," Bill told me, "but I'm grateful for the chance to pay Dad back."

Heather and Chuck, whose parents are both near 80, just sold their house and bought a sprawling rambler that has separate living quarters so Heather's parents can move out of their two-level condo where climbing stairs has become too difficult and risky.

"The hardest part," Heather explained to me, "was convincing my folks that we really wanted this; that they were not a burden to us."

Vince and his wife were building their dream home when it became apparent that his parents were not doing well living on their own. After consulting with his parents, they decided to build a casita on their property with a living room, bedroom, reading room and bathroom that was a short 100-foot stone pathway walk from the main house where all the meals would be served.

"After talking with my folks," Vince explained, "it became apparent that some semblance of independence was critical in this set-up and that living under our roof just wouldn't cut it."

Each year The Financial Planning Institute surveys financial planners about the most pressing concerns their clients - most of whom are baby boomers - have about life transitions. They can choose from any one of 60 options from cradle to grave.

And what comes out number one?

How to help Mom and Dad.

The "me generation" feels taxed emotionally, financially and even in our careers as we struggle to balance our own lives with fulfilling the needs of our aging parents. And while many people may not have the resources of these examples, we all want to do something.

Sure, long-term care insurance can help. But it still falls woefully short when we address the larger issues. Will our parents' income be adequate as inflation and gyrating Wall Street take their toll? How long can - and should - they stay living independently? Can two - or even three - generations live under one roof? How do we deal with a terminally ill parent and a grieving spouse?

What are the costs of moving Mom and Dad across the country to live closer to us? At what point is assisted living right for them rather than living alone or with us? How can we meet our job responsibilities while making sure Mom and Dad are cared for?

Many of our dreams and plans for our own retirement may be put on hold as life asserts itself in ways we never imagined. And high among those is the role we play in helping our parents as they age.

But a funny thing can happen as our golf matches, fishing and hiking trips, and beach chairs yield to driving Mom or Dad to doctor and pharmacy visits as well as reminding them to take their medicine. Even as these responsibilities loom large, the emotional payoffs can be extraordinary. We bond with our parents in ways we never had before. We feel appreciated, rewarded, loved, grateful and proud.

But like everything else in life, we must plan for this financially. It may seem like prying, but it's important that baby boomers understand their parents' financial condition. It helps us prepare for what's ahead. We don't want to be taken by surprise when they can't afford to live on their own.

Seeing that our parents could have some gaps in their income needs, my brother and I created "parental pensions." This is money we made available to our parents so they can continue to enjoy life without having to worry about making ends meet. It's not a lot, but it's enough to make a difference.

Parental pensions are a concept that more and more boomers are embracing as we move from being focused on "me" to "we." It's a way for us to say thank you to our parent for being there so many times for us.

Boomers have been credited with changing every institution we have passed through, and not always for the better. Seeing the amazing ways we are responding to the needs of our aging parents makes this boomer realize it never really was just about "me."

• Mitch Anthony is the founder and president of the Financial Life Planning Institute. He is the author of "The New Retirementality: Planning Your Life and Living Your Dreams ... at Any Age You Want." Readers may write to him at: Advisor Insights Inc., P.O. Box 34, Rochester, Minn. 55903.

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