“How can I make my parents organize their papers? They gave me power of attorney and named me as executor, but I don’t know where anything is.” I receive phone calls like this several times each year. The caller is usually fearful, frustrated, and worried about the state of the parents’ affairs.
Each time I hear this question, or one like it, I’m reminded of the old lightbulb joke:
Q: How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: Only one, but the lightbulb has to want to change.
The same is true for a disorganized loved one – they have to want to change their situation. But even though we can’t make them change, there are a few things we can do to pave the way for them to request help.
First, a few things to remember:
- Your parents probably already know their affairs aren’t in order.
- Your parents likely worry about the situation you will inherit.
- Your parents might feel overwhelmed. If they are dealing with health issues, they may feel too tired to face the pile of papers.
In short, your parents likely feel some level of embarrassment or vulnerability. To be successful, you will need to be sensitive to their discomfort, and respect their pace. Here is the sequence I recommend to clients who are preparing to assume their parents’ affairs:
- Don’t mention the piles
I know, that seems like not talking about the elephant in the room. But your parent already knows the papers are there, and it doesn’t help to start the conversation on a negative note.
- Listen for the hurt
Does your parent ever mention the disorganization? When the children stop bringing it up, the parent often will start. Rather than jumping in immediately, listen for your parent’s emotion. Does your parent say things like “I’m confused about which bills have been paid,” or “I’m sorry the kitchen table is a mess?” These are indications of where your parent’s stress is, and a clue to where help is most needed.
Don’t jump to solutions yet. Just reflect the emotion. “It sounds like you’re worried about the bills” lets your parent know that it’s safe to talk about the problem with you. Don’t rush this step! Your parent may need to consider several different angles.
- Get practical
It’s best to wait until your parent indicates interest in addressing the practical side of their problem. They might say “It would take too much time to clean this up,” or “I don’t know where to start.” Now you can gently begin to explore some solutions. Keep it small, and keep it simple. You’re more likely to inch the process forward with “Why don’t I help you open today’s mail?” than “I’ll bring the grandkids over on Saturday and we’ll whip the whole garage into shape!” Take your cue from the pain points your parent has already mentioned, even if it means ignoring an area you think is more pressing.
- Leverage your success
Celebrate your first win, regardless of how small it is. After you open that pile of mail together, enjoy a treat together. Maybe go to lunch, or watch a favorite TV show. This puts you back at Step 1 – Don’t mention any remaining piles, and listen for the next pain point.
It might take a few iterations to build some momentum with your parent. The key is to respect your parent’s preferred pace. In time, your parent may trust you enough to delegate work to you, or let you hire a professional organizer.
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