“Have the Talk of a Lifetime”— But with Whom?
By Mary B. Young, D.B.A.
Once you reach a certain age—maybe it’s 60 or 70 or even 75—scanning newspaper obituaries becomes a daily ritual. When I download an issue of the Boston Globe, I turn to the obit pages right away. First, I see if I know anyone. Then I look for people who seem about my age and clues about how they died.
Frequently, my eyes drift to the display ad that appears in this section and is given an extra-large space before holidays. “Have the Talk of a Lifetime,” reads the headline. The photo shows an elderly parent and middle-aged child gazing lovingly at one another. The copy below urges families to have explicit conversations before it’s too late. How would you like to be remembered? Whom should we contact when you die? Where would the person you designate find your important papers?
These are all important questions. Yet, as a Solo, I find these ads annoying. Who, exactly, am I supposed to have this talk with? What about those of us who currently don’t have a spouse or partner or adult children who might reluctantly take part in this conversation, but thank me later on.
Aging solo is hardly a demographic oddity. By some estimates, almost one quarter of American age 65 and older have neither a spouse nor children.1 The older we get, the less likely we are to live with a spouse or partner, particularly if we’re female. (Just read the obituaries.)
In an era when society aims to become more inclusive, these talk-of-a-lifetime ads are still stuck in the 1950s, when (heterosexual) couples and kids filled every home—or were thought to. Today this nuclear-family assumption seems out of touch with reality.
I was bemoaning this fact to my long-time friend Allen Davis, founder of Davis Financial Group (and chief architect of The Soloist newsletter). The ads overlook a significant portion of the very audience they are trying to reach. They are off-putting and ineffective. Then I shared something more personal: Every time I see these ads, I hit a wall. Exactly whom am I supposed to have this talk with? My brother, maybe? His kids? My minister? I feel embarrassed—even ashamed— not having a built-in go-to person. My reluctance to admit that deficit to anyone else keeps me from taking steps I should be taking: making an estate plan, appointing a personal representative (executor), naming a co-trustee, having a plan for whatever help if I gradually—or suddenly—need it. Many Solos grapple with this dilemma, I ranted. That’s where they get stuck.
Because Allen has seen these issues through his work with Solo clients, I expected him to respond sympathetically. Instead, he actually pushed back.
Solos aren’t the only ones who feel that way, he said. People in all kinds of situations feel embarrassed admitting it to a financial planner, estate lawyer, health-care provider or care advisor. They have no obvious candidate to talk to about their end-of-life wishes and formal arrangements. And so they avoid it altogether.
It turns out that there’s a host of reasons why non-Solos—both couples and singles—may feel stymied about who they might call on.
Physical distance. Their adult child or children live far away.
Disability and other limitations. Their child has a disability or other limitation and would not be able to serve in a role such as healthcare proxy, caregiver or personal representative. Or their child might also have other problems (for example, addiction or incarceration).
Estrangement. They may be estranged from their child or children. Research suggests that this is more common than we might think.2 Yet it’s a situation that many parents are particularly reluctant to acknowledge publicly.
Less defined family ties. In recent decades, with the increase in divorce and remarriage, long-term unmarried couples, blended families, the definition of “family” has become looser. As a result, the notion of “family ties” has become ambiguous. Do stepchildren feel equally committed to helping their aging parents and their stepparent(s)? Can a long-time companion turn to the partner’s relatives for support?
Sibling discord, mistrust, or rivalry. Couples and singles with more than one child may recognize that lifelong conflicts and personality differences could flare up if the parent singles out one child for a specific task or seems to overlook another.
It’s not just Solos who feel self-conscious about their family circumstances and stymied about whom they can ask to fill critical roles. Many non-Solos face similar dilemmas and, not wanting to acknowledge their situation to a professional advisor, they, too, put off the conversation.
I felt oddly comforted by Allen’s reminder that Solos are not such outliers. Sometimes I fall prey to the 1950s definition of a “normal” family support system. I still haven’t completed the roster of people— a mix of extended family, friends, and professionals— who will serve as my team when I grow older. But I’m not the only one who finds that challenging. Or who needs to just do it anyway.
1 Endnote re childlessness and age
2 The Prevalence of Family Estrangement, Stand Alone (2013), www.StandAlone.org.uk
Securities and investment advisory services and financial planning services offered through qualified registered representatives of MML Investor Services, LLC, member SIPC, Supervisory office: 300 Whitney Avenue, Suite 600, Holyoke, MA 01040, Tel: 413-539-2000. The Davis Financial Group, LLC is not a subsidiary or affiliate of MML Investors Services, LLC.