09/16/2012 12:12 EDT | Updated 11/14/2012 05:12 EST

Planning For Our Parents Getting Older

Doris Gallan

We all become familiar in varying ways with the shift that occurs over time in every parent-child relationship.

If you're in your 40s or 50s you may be starting to deal with the reality that your parents, as you've always seen them, are changing. They may not be as strong, as quick, or capable as they were 10 or 20 years ago. There may be subtle deficits, and suddenly you find yourself face to face with the realization that your parents are getting old and they will not be here forever.

This itself is a very difficult idea to grasp. As someone's child, whether we are five or 55, we want to believe our parents will be with us always. Accepting that this isn't the case is an emotional struggle for many, and how we will deal with those feelings isn't something we can plan for. In fact it can be shocking.

Beginning to take on the role of care giver for your parents is another struggle, but how best to ensure mom and dad's well-being, finances, and expressed wishes are looked after is something you can plan for. This begins, ideally, by making decisions before the fact and there are four basic components you want to determine:

• Power of Attorney, Finance -- this covers financial affairs and allows the person named to act in the case of mental incapability.

• Power of Attorney, Personal Care -- this covers personal decisions, such as housing and health care in the case of mental incapability.

• Living will -- this document outlines one's wishes should they become ill and can't communicate wishes about treatment. Commonly this will include what they want to have happen should artificial life support or resuscitation be required when they are critically ill.

• Last will and testament -- covers the distribution of personal property (assets, liabilities and personal wishes), and takes effect upon death.

Additional information and resources regarding powers of attorney, living wills and last wills and testaments can be found on the government sites for each province.

For adult children, addressing these four components, begins by having a conversation. Approach your parents about the need to ensure plans are in place for them in the years ahead. Explain this will allow you to ensure their needs and desires are looked after the way they want, should they be unable to do so themselves.

If you have siblings you may be relying on them as well, first discuss the need for planning with them. If you have difficult relationships with your siblings now is the time to work on bettering your communication specific to the subject of your parents. If you can't get past the sibling issues then this will have to be addressed in your parents' planning. Perhaps it means a division of who handles what -- but being in a situation where you can't get past your fights or issues with siblings when choices must be made for your parents is exactly want you want to avoid by planning in advance.

Having conversations that lead to a clear articulation of wants regarding finances, care and estate will help get in place the documents needed to lay out what is to be done in times when stress is high and decision making skills can be challenging.

For young seniors, this all may still feel so very far away. Canadians are living longer and retiring later. But just as we plan for retirement, planning for getting old should be seen as another step in our accepted life planning, and even in broaching the subject of planning, potential challenges that will have to be navigated may come to light.

If your parents are young seniors who are disorganized in their file-keeping for example, now is the time for them to create -- or work with you to create -- a well-organized system of the inventory of investments and debts and any associated information that might be essential.

What if your parents express a desire to live out their years in their own home but haven't accounted for the potential care costs involved? Will you or your siblings be able to see those wishes through? If not, better to visit this issue now and see if anything can be done to support the associated costs. Likewise, if retirement or nursing facilities are the plans, perhaps you want to begin the research and visits together now so that a preference for a particular place can be taken into account.

What if after having the conversation, you discover your parents don't want or trust you or your siblings to look after their interests? Best to know now, as it's especially important they decide long before the fact and document the plan and appoint trusted executors accordingly.

Speaking with your parents about their wishes in life and after death to avoid surprises and field potential problems is something that should be done when they're in a position to make decisions. Taking steps to plan now will help decrease the avoidable hardship or heartache at a time where so much of it is unavoidable.

Stephen Rosenfield is a Toronto Family Mediator and Founder of Canada's first ever Family Support Expo taking place at the International Centre on Saturday October 20 and Sunday October 21.