It's not always easy for adult children to talk to their aging parents about the future. Conversations about health and finances can make families uncomfortable, and even cause fear. But not having a plan in place can result in a stressful situation for everyone down the line, and could leave children with the burden of making decisions on their parents' behalf without a good understanding of their wishes.

When your family gets together for the holidays, it can be a great time to take note of how your parents are doing and may even be an opportunity start this very important conversation. But how do you begin and what should you cover?

When to start a conversation

Too often, adults don't think about planning for their parents' future until there's a problem.

“It's critical to have these conversations when your parents are relatively healthy instead of during an emergency or sudden hospitalization," said Catherine Hodder, Esq., an estate planning attorney and author of Estate Planning for the Sandwich Generation: How to Help Your Parents and Protect Your Kids.

Your parents' needs can change gradually or in an instant. So the sooner you start talking to them about their future, the better prepared you'll both be when things do change.

How to start a conversation with aging parents

For many adult children, finding the right way to bring up tricky subjects is a major stumbling block. The right setting and approach can make all the difference.

Start the conversation in person, in a relaxed setting where you can talk without interruptions. Although the holidays might be the time when your family is all together, your parents may not wish to talk about their changing needs in front of the whole family. Try and find some one-on-one time to talk.

Approach the conversation with an open mind. You might use your own financial and estate planning experiences as a conversation starter.

“A great tip is to ask your parents' opinions," Hodder says. “Parents love to give advice. Tell your parents that you are looking into life insurance and long-term care insurance. Ask them if they have these types of insurance policies or if they considered them."

What topics to cover

Hodder says there are four main subjects to discuss.

Medical

“Talk about their health and who will make healthcare decisions for them if they can't," Hodder says.

Ask your parents if they have a living will, durable power of attorney, or advance directive, that can facilitate health-related decisions in the event the parent is unable to do so.

A durable power of attorney doesn't have to be a complicated legal document. You can ask your parents' doctor or hospital to provide a form or download the forms used in your state from the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.

Financial

According to a 2017 report from Fannie Mae and the Urban Institute, roughly two-thirds of homeowners age 65 and older own their home without a mortgage. If a significant portion of your parents' net worth is tied up in their home, they may need to tap that equity to supplement their retirement income.

Patti Black, a Certified Financial Planner who also helped take care of her mother before she died and now helps care for her 87-year-old father, recommends asking your parents about how their bills are paid. “If there are multiple bank accounts, what account is used to pay bills? What income, if any, is regularly deposited in the bank account and what bills are automatically drafted? Are there periodic expenses, like insurance premiums or real estate taxes, paid for via check?"

Aging

“Talk about where they plan on living out their years (and backup plans)," Hodder says.

A good way to start this is to ask them to describe what “successful aging" looks like. How do they see themselves living in the short, medium and long terms?

According to AARP, roughly 90 percent of adults age 65 or older want to “age in place" in their homes or communities. If your parents want to stay in their home as long as possible, they might need home modifications or services that help them live independently. Again, releasing some home equity may help with this.

Death

If the conversation is open and frank, you may be able to discuss funeral arrangements.

Ask your parents whether they want to be buried or cremated and where they want their remains placed. Get their input on the memorial service. Would they like special music, flowers, poems or scriptures?

It's also ok to leave the conversation open and continue it at another time. “When talking to your parents about the future, remember it is a marathon, not a sprint," Hodder said. “It will take several small conversations to cover important information."

These topics aren't pleasant to discuss, but talking to your parents will help eliminate the problems that can arise when your once-independent parent needs help.