After my mother-in-law died suddenly, my wife and I found ourselves caring for my father-in-law. There was so much we didn’t know. One area where we were flying blind: We had no idea what financial resources he had, what banks and mutual funds he used, or how to access the funds he needed to pay for his home health aides and, later, assisted living and nursing home care.  

It turns out we were hardly alone. Less than half of adult children say they have ever had a conversation about money with their aging parents. And only 4 in 10 know how much their parents make. Yet, more than 60 percent of these parents think their kids are aware of their financial situation. 

This troubling gap is reported in the Employee Benefit Research Institute’s 2010 health confidence study. And it is more evidence that adult children and their elderly parents do a terrible job talking to each other about money. 

There is no doubt that it is awkward. How do you sit down with a parent and say, “So dad, how much money do you have, anyway?” And how often, when adult children try, do parents shut them off with a response that says, in effect, “It’s none of your business.”

When folks who come to my community programs ask about it, I usually suggest they have this talk when their parents are relatively young and healthy. It is always easier to discuss money–to say nothing of advance directives and other end-of-life issues–before someone is very sick.

It is also easier to make it a two-way street. For instance, adult children can sit down with their parents and first talk about their own planning.

Imgaine starting off a conversation with mom and dad something like this: “We met with our lawyer last week to talk about our own estate plan. We thought it would be a good idea to let you know about our assets and give you a list of our insurance policies and bank accounts. Just in case something happens….”

In that context, it is much less uncomfortable to ask them the same questions. Even if they are unwilling to tell you how much they have, it is critical to know where they keep their funds and, if possible, get a power of attorney that gives you access to their accounts should they be incapable of managing their money. Without those documents, even paying bills on their behalf can turn into a nightmare.

Those of us who are caring for our parents have a huge job. Knowing a bit about their finances can make it a little it easier. But to do that, we need to talk.