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    Are You Listening?

    As our parents get older, we often relate to them as if they were our children and we listen to them in that way. My mother suffered from Alzheimer’s and her conversations would revolve around a few topics: her need for a phone, an eye doctor appointment and another box of tissues. But occasionally she would say something quite profound, and if I weren’t listening to her carefully, I would miss it.

    Being a good listener is a real art. Several years ago I took an excellent training course in Elder Mediation offered by Elder Decisions in Boston.  Sharon, an attorney from Maryland, who was in the course with me,  introduced me to some of the books written by members of the Harvard Negotiation Project.  She shared a book with me written by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen entitled, Difficult Conversations, How to Discuss What Matters Most. In this book, the authors describe the key skills to become a good listener.  I think we would all benefit from applying these skills to our conversations with our elderly parents.

    The authors state that truly listening to another person transforms your relationship with them.  They suggest learning to listen “from the inside out.” In other words, listen with curiosity. Ask questions. Paraphrase what your parent says so s/he understands that you understand him/her. Listen for the feelings behind what is being said and acknowledge those when you hear them.

    But don’t let your conversation become an exercise in listening correctly. The heart of good listening is listening with authenticity. People will sense what’s going on inside you if you are not genuine. If your intentions are good, the words you use are not that important.

    The authors remind us that each of us has an internal voice, the voice inside our head that reports what we are thinking, not what we are saying. This internal voice is constantly evaluating everything that is going on, including our words and actions and what the other person is saying. If we are not aware of this voice, it can create havoc with our attempts to listen to others authentically.

    Listen to that internal voice in your head. What is it saying now? (What, me? I don’t have any internal voice.) Don’t turn off the voice, but listen to it carefully.  How is it evaluating what the other person is saying? Get to know the kinds of things your internal voice is transmitting to you so they don’t interfere with your conversation.

    Stay focused on curiosity in your conversation with your parent. Remember that most people, especially elders, rarely perceive that anyone is actually  listening to them. And when they sense that you are authentically paying attention, it will open up their heart.

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    Financial Advisors may reprint any articles from The Gift of Communication Blog in your own print or electronic newsletter. But please include the following paragraph:

    Reprinted from Bob Mauterstock’s The Gift of Communication Blog. Subscribe at http://www.GiftofCommunication.com  and receive Bob’s Family Meeting Checklist Guide.

    Should you have a pre-paid funeral plan for your parents (or yourself)?

    Advantages and Disadvantages of Prepaid Plans

    One way to plan in advance for the end of one’s life is to sign a formal contract called a “preneed funeral plan.” With this plan, money to pay for a funeral and/or burial is held in a trust, in an escrow account or paid through an insurance policy on the life of the person desiring the plan. Parts of or all of the funeral service and burial are designed in advance and pre-funded in advance and the family has little to do but show up.

    This type of planning has become very popular in recent years. A survey conducted by the AARP in 1999 found that two out of five people over age 50 had been approached to pre-purchase funerals and burial goods and services. An AARP survey in 1998 indicates that 32% of all Americans over age 50, roughly 21 million people, have prepaid some or all of their funeral and or burial expenses (but not necessarily through a formal preneed plan). Breaking that down; about 25% of the over age 50 population have prepaid for their burials (cemetery plot, mausoleum or niche), 18% have prepaid for headstones, urns, caskets, grave liners or vaults, opening and closing of graves and so on and 13% have prepaid for goods or services from a funeral home or funeral director. The same survey indicates that over $25 billion is being held in preneed trust funds. Roughly another $25 billion is waiting to be paid out in life insurance benefits. Prepaid or preneed funerals and burials are big business.

    Funerals and burials funded privately by the family, or paid from an individual life insurance policy and arranged informally through a funeral home or funeral director are generally not subject to state regulation. Any formal arrangement through a second party or involving a contract is subject to regulation in all states. Each state has adopted different rules as to who can sell these plans, what the plans can provide, what contract provisions must be, how the plan is to be funded and what recourse purchasers might have in the event of fraud or default. All states call these regulated plans “preneed” funeral and burial arrangements.

    Here are some advantages as to why one would want to buy a preneed plan for funeral and burial services and goods.

    • It provides peace of mind knowing these arrangements have been made in advance.
    • It avoids the burden on family members to make decisions when they are most vulnerable to manipulation.
    • It allows one to virtually control from the grave by determining in advance the funeral products, funeral services, burial products and burial services that one would prefer having for final arrangements.
    • It helps the family to avoid taking loans, arranging finance plans, raiding savings or selling assets to pay for a funeral and burial.
    • It guarantees (for many contracts) that if products and services currently purchased are not available in the future, equivalent substitutes will be provided at no additional cost.
    • It locks in guaranteed prices (available with some contracts) forever.
    • It allows for inflation in future costs (for those contracts that do not guarantee prices) by investing money in an interest-bearing account or buying life insurance that increases in value over time.
    • Depending on the contract, it may allow for transfer to another funeral home or for a partial or full refund.

    Unfortunately, there are also problems with prepaid, pre-planned final arrangements.

    • With some trust fund and insurance funding options, there may be no refund if someone wants to cancel the plan in the future.
    • If a purchaser moves to another state there may be no transfer options or there may be different rules governing the funding option.
    • In some contracts, interest earnings on investments resulting in excess money not needed for the plan may be retained by the funeral home or funeral director.
    • On installment plans, interest may be charged but not credited to the account.
    • In certain insurance-funded contracts, the ownership or death benefit may be irrevocably assigned to the contract holder (funeral home), preventing the purchaser from enjoying ownership rights in the policy.
    • In certain insurance funded contracts, a growth in the death benefit over time that exceeds the cost of the preneed plan services and goods may be pocketed by the contract holder (funeral home) instead of being refunded.
    • If the contract provider goes out of business or fails to secure 100% of the funds for future payment, there may be no recourse to get all of the money back that was put in.
    • If certain services or goods that were purchased initially are not available in the future, but more expensive versions might be, the family may be forced to pay extra for those items.
    • In certain insurance funded plans, if the insured dies too soon, there may have been a waiting period in which few or no benefits are paid at death, thus forcing the family to pay out of pocket for the funeral.
    • Certain unscrupulous providers may have failed to provide an itemized list of services and goods or failed to identify properly, specific services and goods, thus allowing the provider in the future to substitute less expensive items or to leave out services and goods that were originally anticipated in the agreement.

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    Financial Advisors may reprint any articles from The Gift of Communication Blog in your own print or electronic newsletter. But please include the following paragraph:

    Reprinted from Bob Mauterstock’s The Gift of Communication Blog. Subscribe at http://www.GiftofCommunication.com  and receive Bob’s Family Meeting Checklist Guide.

    Give Your Children What They Deserve! Performance Based Inheritance

    Most of our parents don’t really think about how they want their inheritance distributed to their children. Often without much thought, they choose to divide everything up evenly between them, regardless of their children’s situations. In many case,s this can result in anger and hurt feelings for many years after they are gone.

    Let’s take a situation that I have seen very often. A daughter takes on the responsibility of watching over her parents, visiting them daily, cooking for them, driving them to their doctors and in some cases, bringing them into her home or living with them. When they pass, on she gets the same inheritance that her two brothers got despite her exceptional contribution to their well-being and her brothers’ lack of involvement.

    Why does this happen so often? Because most parents don’t want to face the issues head-on with their children while they are alive.They don’t want anyone to be upset. They don’t want to face a possible conflict within the family. As a result, they just split everything up and let the children work it out after they are gone. The conflict and hurt feelings often arise months and years in the future.

    How can your family avoid this situation if your parents don’t want to take the initiative to discuss these issues? It’s time for a family meeting, and it’s often the Alpha child’s job to make sure that meeting happens. Who is the Alpha Child? That ‘s the child who takes the most interest in his/her parents, has their trust and who they will listen to. That meeting often is facilitated by a family adviser or in some cases a professional mediator. When the meeting is over, everyone understands the parents’ position and what they can expect. There are no surprises when the will is read.

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    Financial Advisors may reprint any articles from The Gift of Communication Blog in your own print or electronic newsletter. But please include the following paragraph:

    Reprinted from Bob Mauterstock’s The Gift of Communication Blog. Subscribe at http://www.GiftofCommunication.com  and receive Bob’s Family Meeting Checklist Guide.

    Aging In Place

    In a recent AARP study, nearly 75% of adults 45 and older said they strongly desire to stay in their current home as long as possible. To make sure that you can “age in place,” you may have to make several updates to your home and your financial plan. Do not expect that your children or the government is going to step in and help you out. You need to create a plan to take care of yourself.

    In addition to concerns about transportation and the availability and cost of help, you need to take a serious look at your home. Don’t wait until there is a crisis to make needed improvements. Are your doorways wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair? A narrow wheelchair or walker needs clearance of at least 32 inches.

    Do you have your master bedroom on the first floor? If not, are the steps to the second floor steep and is the stairway narrow? You may have to consider some sort of stairway elevator to get up and down at some point. Do you have a full bathroom on the first floor? If so does it  have a walk in shower? Converting a bathtub to a walk-in shower may cost somewhere between $3000-5000. This is most likely one of your most costly changes.

    Look at your faucets and cabinet handles. Are they big enough to access with a closed fist? Check out your lighting. Older eyes need more light to see clearly. Check to see that the lighting is good in areas where tasks are performed. Consider the interior colors in your home. If your home has dark floors, keep the walls light. Change the color at potential tripping points, such as where the carpet on the stairs meets the floor. Are there other step ups or step downs in the home where it is possible to trip and fall?

    You need to review access to the home itself. In addition to the entry way being wide enough for a wheelchair or walker, is there room to install a ramp for access if necessary?

    Do not wait until someone is coming home from the hospital to consider these steps. Look around now and start planning to make the changes that will help you stay in your home.  Most of the suggestions listed above will not only make your home safe and accessible but they will probably increase its market value as well.

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    Financial Advisors may reprint any articles from The Gift of Communication Blog in your own print or electronic newsletter. But please include the following paragraph:

    Reprinted from Bob Mauterstock’s The Gift of Communication Blog. Subscribe at http://www.GiftofCommunication.com  and receive Bob’s Family Meeting Checklist Guide.

    How to be by the bedside

    When one of your parents is very sick, you may not know what to do or expect. The time you spend with them by their bedside is very important. It is time that you will never forget. You may find it very difficult and very uncomfortable to be there but you will be glad you did it when it is over.

    People are very different in how they handle serious illness. You are just going to have to let them deal with it in their own way. They may just act the way you have always known them or they may seem like a totally different person to you. A lot depends on the type of illness they have and whether or not recovery is possible.

    Your loved one may be afraid of dying, tired all the time, confused, unwilling to have visitors, afraid to be alone, not wanting to talk, restless, depressed, or wanting to talk all the time. None of these actions are unusual. The best thing you can do is to be prepared for the unexpected. Your primary goal should be to make them as comfortable as possible.

    Just being there with your parent is the most important thing you can do. Do not worry about saying the right thing. You may even admit, “Mom, Dad, I don’t know what is the right thing to say to you. I just know that I want to be with you and I am happy to be here.”

    If your parent is sick they may want you to hold their hand, softly stroke their hair, read to them, play some music for them, show them photographs, tell them family stories, listen to them, pray with them or just sit quietly with them. Try not to upset them and assure them that they aren’t a burden to you.

    Be conscious of how long you stay. After awhile you will get a sense of how long is appropriate. If you notice them starting to close their eyes or lose concentration, it’s time to go. In most cases I would suggest not staying longer than an hour. Frequent visits are much more important than long visits. Don’t be offended if they tell you they want to be alone. Having family members visit you requires a lot of energy and can be very draining to those who are ill.

    As difficult as it may seem, imagine that this is the last conversation you may have with them. This will help you say everything you need to say.

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    PERMISSION TO REPRINT:
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    Financial Advisors may reprint any articles from The Gift of Communication Blog in your own print or electronic newsletter. But please include the following paragraph:

    Reprinted from Bob Mauterstock’s The Gift of Communication Blog. Subscribe at http://www.GiftofCommunication.com  and receive Bob’s Family Meeting Checklist Guide.