Communicating with an Assertor About Financial Concerns
Assertors are used to leading conversations and making decisions for themselves and others. They enjoy facts, summaries, and difficult questions. They get impatient when people cushion bad news, spend a lot of time exchanging pleasantries, or try to use feelings as a basis for decision-making. Aging assertors are often in a difficult position, as they might find themselves more frequently needing to follow rather than lead. They’re the subject of decisions, not the decider. This perceived lack of agency can be a source of tension when they’re faced with difficult conversations. However, when you actively include the assertor in the decision-making process, they’ll respond by meeting goals and ensuring that the chosen course of action is a successful one.
Financial issues can be a minefield when you’re dealing with an assertor. Many assertors pride themselves on their financial acumen and planning abilities. Any deterioration in those abilities seems like a lack of self. Sometimes, the aging process can make it harder to make good financial decisions. An aging assertor may not have the time or energy to keep up with financial news like she used to. He may be vulnerable to scams designed to target the fears and hopes of an aging person. Many of these problems are compounded if the assertor also suffers from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. As a caregiver, you must balance the need for independence with the need for protection.
Communicating with an Assertor about Financial Issues
Finances are complicated, especially where they intersect with health needs, retirement planning, and aging. However, many of the financial issues that you and your loved ones find most contentious are likely to fall under the following categories.
Assertors are used to being in control of their finances and correspondence. However, health, memory, or energy issues can make bill paying burdensome. If a caregiver or family member takes control suddenly, it can damage both the relationship and the assertor’s self-image. Losing the ability to pay bills feels like a loss of responsibility and independence, two traits that assertors generally take pride in.
Jennifer was over at her mother’s house when she noticed a ‘final notice’ electric bill on the table. It shocked her, because she knew that her mother had the money to cover the bills, and she’d always paid everything on time in the past. Jennifer knew that her mother would never agree to let someone else pay her bills for her. Instead, she started the conversation with, “Mom, I think you should switch to automatic withdrawal for your utilities. Most places prefer it these days, and you’d save money on stamps and checks.” By framing her suggestion in terms of efficiency rather than incompetence, she was able to get her mother to agree, and set aside time to set it up that weekend.
Everyone gets annoyed when fixed costs like auto insurance, health care deductibles, or property taxes are suddenly no longer fixed, but rising. These changes can be especially worrisome for older adults, since they’re generally on fixed incomes and have to make their savings last.
For instance, Medicare Advantage plans offer many benefits, but they can also be confusing. They change from year to year, it can be difficult to keep track of networks and deductibles, and different plans cover different benefits like gym membership. Assertors may be especially frustrated when they’re confused by their plans, because they’re used to being a decision maker, and these decisions are being made for them by an impersonal insurance company.
Doris quickly learned that when her father’s insurance plan changed, she had to be brief and to the point. Instead of going through the documentation with him and trying to figure it out as he asked her questions, she took the papers home to read. Then she made a list of the changes, deductibles, and covered services for him. He appreciated the concise summary, and she avoided the frustration of trying to decipher complex documents while he asked questions.
Assertors are often very proud of their achievements. Their homes, their portfolios, and their savings stand as monuments to their hard work, leadership, and success over the course of their lives. When you start a conversation about necessary expenditures for long-term care, medications, mobility devices or in-home caregivers, they may be reluctant to let go of assets to finance their current needs. It’s important to give them clear reasons why these expenses are necessary, and to remain firm about their needs and the methods of financing them.
John’s father’s health had reached a point where he could no longer remain in his own home. He needed assisted living, but he was angry about the costs associated with skilled care. He said he’d rather die in his home than give his money to the nursing home. He refused to consider his options, informed John that his decision had been made, and declared that not a dime of his hard-earned savings would go to finance his stay.
John let his father complain, but stood his ground. He realized that skilled care was the only realistic option for his father at this point. However, he’d need his father to agree to finance the care before they could make the move. To persuade his father, he drew up a list of expenses that would be associated with aging in place in his changed circumstances. He included the additional costs that would come from upkeep on the house, retrofitting it to make it accessible, and hiring staff. Once his father had a chance to calm down and analyze the facts, he could see that assisted living was actually more economical and more pleasant that a major home renovation combined with the level of care his physical condition required.
Estate planning can be an emotional topic for many aging adults who may not want to face their own mortality. However, making plans ahead of time can help the funeral, burial, and inheritance processes go more smoothly and ensure that your loved one’s wishes are upheld.
When Debbie had to talk to her uncle about funeral plans, she first called local funeral homes to learn what expenses were generally included in a funeral and burial. She collected a list of decisions that her uncle would want to make in advance: Coffin, burial plot, tombstone. She agreed to act as his ‘secretary,’ making calls and arranging visits to vendors so that he could plan his funeral expenses ahead of time, and pre-pay whenever possible. Her uncle appreciated the chance to consider the information, ask questions, and control all decision-making about the process. Debbie’s preparation turned the funeral planning process into a project for her uncle to manage rather than a burden for him to endure.
The same health changes that increase expenses for an aging family member might also remove opportunities to earn extra income. When an aging adult can’t live within their means, they may need to sell assets, downsize their home, or even consider moving in with a family member. For assertors, this can be especially hard, since they can’t lead or work their way out of the financial hole. In the past, they could rise to meet financial challenges. Now that they’re out of the workforce, selling assets or moving can be a major blow to their self-esteem.
William’s mother couldn’t afford to take care of her home anymore. The house was too large for one person to maintain, and it needed a new roof, a new HVAC repair, and major electrical systems work. Maintenance costs were eating away at the savings she’d carefully set aside. William wanted her to move into a senior apartment and sell the house. Upon telling her, his mother was furious, and accused him of trying to steal her house and her assets.
To help his mother understand the situation and participate in the decision, he drew up a list of the looming expenses and the costs to fix them, versus the money she had available. He also included monthly rental rates and available amenities for nearby senior communities and a list of houses that had recently sold in the neighborhood with their selling prices.Once he presented her with all the information in an organized, to-the-point format, she could see that moving into a senior living community was her smartest option.
Many scammers target the elderly, especially for donation scams and phishing scams where they try to steal banking and credit card information. Assertors may not want to admit that they’ve made bad decisions in trusting scammers, but it’s important for caregivers to give them the tools they need to protect themselves, their information, and their assets.
Maura used “I statements” to start a conversation about scammers with her father. “I’ve been getting some strange calls recently,” she said. “For instance, people claiming to be from Microsoft, and another call claiming to be from my bank, but with the wrong caller ID. When I reported them to the police, they said…” By presenting the information but making it about herself, Maura avoided wounding her father’s pride while giving him necessary information in a concise and timely manner.
General Tips for Communicating with an Assertor
- Be factual and accurate, don’t exaggerate.
- Be straightforward and ask challenging questions, don’t tiptoe.
- Use simple language that educates them on their condition.
- Have structured conversations with tasks/goals for managing conditions and maintaining health.
- Use formulas. List behaviors and results.
- Have conversations in a timely fashion. Don’t rush.
- Stand your ground. Be strong and confident.
- Use non-debatable ‘I’ messages rather than judgmental ‘You’ messages.
- Remember that you don’t have to agree.
- Keep them active in the decision-making. Give them guides that they can follow and manage on their own.
Better Communication Helps Assertors Avoid Financial Struggles
It can be difficult to discuss finances with someone who’s used to being in control and making major decisions. You have an idea of where the problems are, you know what assets are available, but you may not have a clear idea of what solutions will work for your assertor. Remaining calm, presenting information, and, when necessary, sticking to your position in the face of pressure will help you state your case and give your assertor time to consider their options for a pleasant, balanced, and financially secure retirement.