Q&A: Soledad O’Brien Opens Up About Caregiving for Her Parents

Soledad O’Brien, a documentarian, journalist and host of the new personal finance podcast “Everyday Wealth,” was one of six siblings helping their aging parents when they could no longer manage on their own. (Her father passed away on Feb. 6, 2019, and her mother passed away not much later on March 15 of that year.)

O’Brien shares her experiences — including what she wishes she had known then — and advice for those in similar situations, both from guests she’s interviewed and what she and her family learned firsthand.

As told to Lisa Esposito, U.S. News & World Report. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: When did you realize you had become your parents’ caregiver?

I wasn’t the primary caregiver. And I have five brothers and sisters — so I never thought of myself as: ‘I am the caregiver.’ I was the one, because I was in New York City and my parents were (too), who often helped logistically in their day-to-day care. Then I have a sister who was a doctor, so she was managing care when they were in the hospital, and a sister who was in Connecticut and she would manage the finances. And I have two brothers — so we all had a piece of it.

If you said, ‘Oh, you’re the caregiver,’ to one of us, we’d all say, ‘No, there are some amazing women who are the caregivers for Mom and Dad. We’re just trying to logistically help hold it all together.’

My parents passed away the year before the pandemic. And my mom had dementia for probably 10 years before that. They were both in their 80s and quite frail. So their deaths were certainly not a surprise. I guess I just always look back and think: Wow, there’s just so much we could have done better.

What was your parents’ experience with financial fraud?

When I first discovered my dad was absolutely being ripped off, that he was the victim of fraud, oh, my, gosh, it was terrible. And you don’t calculate your parents aren’t going to tell you things.

(Eventually) he told me something like, ‘I think I’m being ripped off.’ I said: ‘What’s going on?’ And he said: ‘I got a note about getting my tax refund. But in order to get the tax refund, I had to send iTunes cards worth $400.’

My dad was literally a renowned scientist. He was a super-smart guy who navigated everything well. And I say that only because it’s very surprising when that person gets taken advantage of. You don’t think it’s going to happen.

You realize as people just get older and frail, and the world moves past them a little bit — of course he was confused. People use iTunes cards, right? They sell them at the pharmacy. So, this group instructed him to go get iTunes cards. Then they called back and said it looked like they made a mistake. They actually needed another $400 to send his tax refund … so he went back to the pharmacy and got (more) iTunes cards.

The third go-around was when he brought me in. He was so embarrassed and he was so ashamed.

That was the first red flag for me and obviously so late in the game. It was the third payment and here I am just figuring it out. And, by the way, I live maybe 40 blocks from my parents. I saw them every day unless I was traveling. So, a lot.

In a lot of ways, we just weren’t prepared for what we knew was coming down the pike.

[READ: How to Coordinate a Parent’s Care With Siblings.]

What were other signs that you parents were struggling with confusion?

One day I went to their apartment and said: Why is there a stack of mail? It’s not opened.

I kid you not: I had an entire freezer one year with delivered steaks. My husband, by the way, is a vegan. But my father decided to order, easily, $1,000 worth of these steaks for us one year.

And giving money to the World Wildlife Fund: You begin to realize for a lot of elderly people, these things pull on their heartstrings. They also don’t really remember when they gave last.

Some people are out-and-out criminals. And others just know that they can dig into people who have savings and are older and maybe don’t have the ability to navigate it very well.

Was there really anything you could have done differently to prevent it?

It never really occurred to me to sit down and talk with my parents’ planner. I had my own financial planner. But when you’re not part of a conversation, it’s hard to insert yourself in somebody else’s finances.

What I could have done differently is found out with Mom and Dad: OK, so you want to give money to the World Wildlife Fund — fantastic. How much are we giving? Let’s set that up. And, obviously, you can’t interrupt out-and-out fraud, but you can help them navigate.

It was really hard for me to eventually jump in to help manage their finances, because by then, it just had gotten messy. They trusted me: I certainly had no designs on their money, but it just becomes much harder. By that time, my mom couldn’t even really sign her name.

As with many aging parents who pride themselves on their independence, was it hard having the talk about sharing information on their finances and decision-making?

Yes. And that’s why I think you need to be having that conversation at 70. Because, at 80, that doesn’t get easier. It’s not like people are: ‘Oh, sure, let me give you control.’ It gets harder. So you need to have that conversation around: ‘How are we going to get the keys away from you when you’re not a safe driver? We should add me to your cards and accounts now. Just add it, I don’t even really need to look at it. I can be helpful.’

If we had a conversation when they were 70: Hey, you should add one of us to your accounts, just so we could help keep an eye on them. You should add me to your credit card statement … so we could have picked up on the iTunes cards, for instance.

It’s so much harder to insert yourself after the wheels start coming off. And so I wish that at 70 we had had a conversation. And then at 75 we kind of tweaked that conversation.

And by the way, they had navigated their retirement well. They navigated their investments pretty well. They purchased homes, they paid off mortgages and they paid for us to go to college. So when (we asked how they were doing) and they said, ‘Yep, we’ve got it’ (it was believable).

You also had concerns about your parents continuing to live safely in their apartment — how did that conversation go?

‘So, you have it all planned out?’ My parents said, ‘Yep. We’ve got it.’

I’ve given this advice to so many friends now. Because we, as a family, really kind of messed that up. My parents’ housing situation was not good. They had an apartment but if you’re going to have live-in care, which is what they wanted — then where are you going to put people? They didn’t have an extra bedroom for a live-in caregiver. We never really walked through: ‘So this is what their apartment needs to have.’

My mom had had a fall before she really had full dementia. So we had retrofitted the bathroom. They could get around pretty well. Mom was in a wheelchair toward the end but my dad was pretty mobile. So, that was less of a problem for us. I actually think we were more attuned to the physical challenges.

When could they no longer live in their original home?

Eventually we moved them into a retirement home; a wonderful retirement home. It’s fabulous. But by then, the day I moved my mom in with her full dementia, she was crying. It was so upsetting. Because she didn’t want to go. Because there had been no conversation: Here is the plan. We had left the plan up to them, and they didn’t really have a plan, to be honest.

Finances is a big part of that plan. They were pretty good about their finances. But those nursing homes in New York City are quite expensive. Having full-time, around-the-clock care is quite expensive. I think we really could have done so much better if we had (taken steps later mentioned on the podcast).

[READ: Identifying the Right Time for Senior Care.]

When is the right time to talk about financial planning with your aging parents?

Start these conversations early and if they’re awkward — and they always are — use your wealth planner as the person who’s the navigator, who asks the awkward questions.

I’m all over having a financial planner for my life. It never occurred to me to (reach out to) the financial planner for their lives. But if you are going to be the one responsible for what happens, you kind of have to do that.

There are ways in which you can get documents that allow you certain access. You want to make sure you’re protecting your parents. And obviously, the goal was never: I want to be able to spend Mom and Dad’s money. It was: I need to see how Mom and Dad’s money is being spent.

My point of view on ‘Everyday Wealth’ has always been about: What’s the life you want to lead? I wish we had those conversations — so when I was moving my mom into the nursing home that she wasn’t crying about it. Obviously, she had dementia and she wasn’t fully aware of what was happening. But it was very upsetting. And I know, really thoughtful conversations ahead of time would have helped a lot — would have helped her, would have helped me and all my siblings.

How did this experience shape your personal retirement plans?

It changed mine a lot and I think also my in-laws’. My husband, watching all this, started having conversations with his parents, who were 10 years younger than mine. And then I am so much more transparent with my own children. They understand: This is how I want to live. These are my goals for my retirement, these are my goals for my end of life.

Parents love to say — my parents were no different — ‘I don’t want to burden you.’ And yet, when you don’t have these (plans), you do burden people. Leaving it undone, and unsaid and unmanaged is a burden.

So, I’m not telling my kids I don’t want to burden them. It’s, ‘Let’s do the messy, hard stuff on the front end so on the back end we’re just executing what we planned.’ My strategy is: It’s not about the balance in your account, it’s about the life you want to lead. Are you living the way you want to live? And I think that’s through your entire life journey.

What are some resources you recommend for families in this situation?

Check out these online financial and caregiving sources:

AARP family caregiving guides.

FBI website: Scams and Safety — Elder Fraud.

Federal Trade Commission: FTC report — Protecting Older Consumers.

Edelman Financial Engines webpage: Inheritance Theft.

[READ: What’s the Difference Between a Senior Living Community and Independent Living?]

In addition to the above Q&A with U.S. News reporter Lisa Esposito, O’Brien shared specific advice from two “Everyday Wealth” podcast episodes, detailed below.

How to Set Care Expectations With Parents

Here is specific advice shared by O’Brien and co-host Jean Chatzky in an “Everyday Wealth” podcast episode on setting care expectations among family members.

When to start financial conversations with parents. The 40/70 rule basically means that if you’re 40 years old or your parents are 70 and you haven’t already discussed finances — it’s time.

Let your financial expert structure the meeting. A trusted expert like a financial planner can be the catalyst and schedule the meeting, creating an environment to make this important discussion easier.

Use this time to set expectations. Parents can describe their expectations about finances and caregiving that may involve their adult children. The discussion should also address what you, as a potential caregiver, can personally expect in terms of career impact, future earnings potential and your ability to save for retirement or send your own children to desired schools.

Clarify responsibility among siblings. Where is money to care for parents going to come from? Who will take on responsibility for financial and caregiving decisions? Discuss which sibling will be “the one” in charge.

Build in caregiving costs. The financial planner can bring up a retirement projection that includes likely costs of nursing home or in-home care.

Look into caregiving resources and benefits. Family caregivers may be eligible to be paid for their efforts through Medicaid or military benefits.

Address sensitive issues in advance. When do older parents stop driving, and who will help them with transportation then? What’s the backup plan when caregivers get exhausted? It’s more helpful to consider such issues beforehand than try to manage them in crisis moments.

How to Avoid Elder Fraud Scams

Here is advice from an FBI expert featured on another “Everyday Wealth” podcast episode focused on protecting loved ones 60 and older with tips on different types of elder fraud scams and how to avoid them:

Elderly targets. Fraudsters go where the money is, and elderly people often have significant resources, while being more vulnerable — at times lonely, more trusting and possibly with less technical expertise.

Romance confidence scams. Perpetrators locate older individuals on dating sites or social media platforms and prey on those relationships.

Technical support fraud. This relies on a victim’s lack of technical expertise or comfort with technology, with scammers authoritatively warning people of a computer virus and requesting access to their computers.

Investment scams. The growth of bitcoin allows these transactions to occur in minutes, versus check-writing frauds in the past.

Use due diligence. At any age, take your time to think things through and discuss proposed financial transactions with a family member or financial planner before acting, the FBI expert advised.

Be careful about releasing personal information. For instance, beware of calls from purported IRS agents or credit card companies requesting money.

Report incidents if they occur. Call your local FBI field office or use the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) to report Internet-based fraud.

More from U.S. News

11 Red Flags to Look for When Choosing a Nursing Home

Beyond Bingo: Innovative Activities at Today’s Nursing Homes

10 Superfoods for Older Adults

Q&A: Soledad O?Brien Opens Up About Caregiving for Her Parents originally appeared on usnews.com

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