Family Ties: A Fish Story There are three big things to ask your parents about as they age. But sometimes what you really need is a recipe
(MONEY Magazine) – This past April, my parents came to our house for the Jewish holiday of Passover. Nothing unusual there. Seder with all the trimmings--from matzo balls to potato kugel--has become my holiday meal, just as Thanksgiving is my mother-in-law's. But this year my parents arrived early, on a mission. My mother had decided it was time to teach me how to make gefilte fish.
Now I know that to people in much of the country, gefilte fish comes in jars. But my parents were raised in the Northeast, where there used to be carp awaiting their fates in bathtubs. Nowadays it's easier. Fish markets will grind the fish for you, saving the skin and bones for the stock. Yet when I placed my order, my fishmonger, Brian, said, "Good for you. Not many people are carrying on this tradition."
Precisely my mother's point. She spent years fine-tuning her recipe and had no intention of letting it die with her. So we spent the better portion of the afternoon making fish patties and smelling up the house.
This has been a tough year healthwise for my parents. As soon as my dad was on the mend, my mother had her knees replaced. We're all feeling their mortality. So when I saw that Susan Piver, author of The Hard Questions, would publish The Hard Questions for Adult Children and Their Aging Parents this fall, I gave her a call.
Piver is one of three children of a still healthy 80-year-old father and 74-year-old mom. She wrote the book now, she says, because if and when her parents do become ill, she doesn't want to fall apart emotionally or lapse into "management mode," focusing solely on the administrative aspects of their care.
That means laying as many issues on the table as you can while your parents are healthy. Even if your parents are ill, it pays to talk. "Different questions will float to the top," Piver says. In talking to dozens of parents and their adult children about what they would want one another to know, she uncovered several interesting categories of questions. Here are some of them, plus some follow-up questions of my own.
THE BIG THREE No matter what shape your folks are in, you need to ask the big estate-planning questions we often raise in MONEY: Do you have a will? Do you have a living will? Have you selected a health-care proxy? (Note to self: Ask parents where they keep these papers.)
SIBLING TO SIBLING Piver asks, "Are you the one?" I know I am. I have the health-care proxy, I am a co-executor. I am also the oldest and the only girl. It's important, Piver says, to check in with your siblings to make sure that "the one" knows what's expected and is comfortable with it. (Note to self: Talk to brothers about this.)
REALITY CHECK What sort of day-to-day life do your parents envision if they can't care for themselves? Are there activities they'd like you to help them continue, from weekly movie nights to manicure appointments? And how about the larger picture? Piver always imagined that if one of her parents passed away, the other would live with her. And yet when she asked her parents, they preferred an assisted-living facility with activities and companions their own age. (Note to self: Mom? Dad?)
KEEPING THE FAITH Finally, ask if there are family traditions they want continued. It was this question of Piver's that made me realize what was going on with my mother and the fish. She didn't say it. She didn't have to. But I know why it was so important that I know how to layer the fish in the pot, separating the layers with the extra skin so they don't stick. I know that a little sugar is as important as a lot of pepper. And I also now know that boiling a pot of cinnamon is the only way to rid the kitchen of the smell.