When it comes to family holiday gatherings, conventional wisdom holds that it’s best to avoid conversations about money and politics. This year, steering clear of political talk is probably a wise idea. But if anyone in the family is elderly and potentially in need of assistance, this might be a good time to put personal finances on the agenda.

“One of the first things seniors tend to struggle with as they age is keeping up with their personal business,” says Amy Goyer, an aging expert at AARP and author of "Juggling Life, Work and Caregiving" (American Bar Association, 2015). But the best time to have crucial conversations about how adult children can help is before their parents actually need it.

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Still, money matters are sensitive issues, and you need to be respectful of your parents' privacy, Goyer says. So don’t start in by grilling your parents about finances over a holiday dinner.

Instead, initiate a discussion at a private moment—or encourage your parents to do so—about what help they might want now or in the future, and how they’d like you to provide it. Consider this a first step in an ongoing conversation.

Here’s are some ways you can offer to assist, no matter what level of help older family members need:  

Consolidate Key Financial Information

It's wise for everyone, regardless of age, to gather all basic financial information in one place. Create a simple paper document listing the names and numbers of your various bank and investment accounts; insurance information (policy numbers and providers); regular bills you pay; and any outstanding debts, such as mortgage and car payments.

You should also list all your sources of income, along with identifying account numbers if earnings are deposited electronically. If you use online accounts, include passwords. Keep this document in a locked, fire-resistant box, and tell trusted family members where you keep the key.

Adult children should ask their parents if they have such a document. If not, offer to help create one. “A non-threatening approach might be to tell them that you’ve recently compiled all your own financial information and wonder if they’ve done the same,” says elder law attorney Michael Amoruso, president-elect of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys.

If your parents are amenable, review this document with them, but let them decide what level of detail they want to share. This can be a good way to gauge how capable your parents are of managing their money.

Because many older people have savings and investments scattered in different accounts, it’s also a good idea to streamline finances: Having fewer accounts makes it easier for people as they get older, as well as for anyone helping them. Consider consolidating accounts at a low-cost financial services firm, such as Fidelity, Vanguard, or Schwab.    

Make Sure Legal Documents Are Current

Find out whether your parents have updated wills, living wills, and healthcare directives—and learn where they are located. And make sure they each have healthcare proxies, which allow a family member or friend to make medical decisions on their behalf if they're incapacitated. They should also have durable power of attorney (POA) documents, which give a designated person similar authority for financial decisions, if needed.

“Couples will often name one another for these roles, but as they get older, it’s advisable for a younger family member, such as an adult child, to also take on that responsibility,” Amoruso says.

Although these legal documents can be created using templates or through online services, it’s worth paying a lawyer to be sure they are done right. “Having incomplete or inaccurate legal documents can lead to costly problems,” Amoruso says. 

Assess Your Parents' Money Management

It may not be immediately clear when your parents are struggling with their finances. So be alert to signs of trouble around their home. Are there piles of unopened mail or bills that are marked “second notice?"

If so, you will probably need to step in, but slowly. “It’s very difficult for many older people to admit they’re having problems and to turn over these responsibilities to a child," says Cheryl J. Sherrard, a certified financial planner in Charlotte, N.C.

Start by sitting down with your mom or dad on a monthly basis as they pay their bills. "It’s best to allow them to continue their usual routines for as long as possible,” Sherrard says.

For parents who are computer savvy or willing to learn, help them set up online systems to automate bill paying and manage their bank and investment accounts. If they're willing to share passwords, you can help monitor their accounts or even take over these tasks if they’re unable to manage. That's especially convenient if you don't live nearby.

If your parents need more help, you can offer to take over the bill paying completely, using your POA status to write checks on their behalf. Keep them fully apprised of everything you do.

Talk About Scams and Frauds

Some 25 million Americans are victims of consumer fraud each year, according to the Federal Trade Commission, and older Americans, who tend to have the most money, are a prime target. A 2017 public health study found that fraud and scams affect as many as 1 of every 18 “cognitively intact older adults” annually—even more if seniors with dementia and those living in nursing homes are included.

To help protect your parents, start a conversation about the various types of scams that anyone can fall prey to. Among the most common: phone calls from someone claiming to be from the IRS or Social Security asking for credit card or bank information, investment firms touting deals that require immediate payment, and people claiming to be calling on behalf of grandchildren who are in trouble.

Try not to lecture or suggest that your parents don’t have the savvy to detect such frauds by emphasizing that everyone, no matter what age, is vulnerable. If you know stories of people who’ve been scammed, share those, Goyer says. Make a pact—one involving the entire family, not just the senior—to call one another if you feel even slightly suspicious of any solicitations at all involving money.  

Be Sensitive to Family Dynamics

One of the most difficult tasks in managing your parents' money is finding the right way to negotiate the family dynamics involved. Avoid drama by encouraging your parents to make the choice about which family member they want to put in charge—and abide by that decision.

If you end up with the lead role, keep any siblings totally involved in what you’re doing, and consult with them before making any decisions. If you're not in charge, be supportive—talk frequently with your sibling and offer help if needed. “Ongoing and open communication can prevent resentment and problems down the line,” Goyer says.

To avoid misunderstandings, keep good records of any financial action you take on your parents’ behalf. And never commingle your finances with theirs, or use their money for something you think they might allow—get their permission first, or if you're acting as POA, discuss it with your siblings.

“Anyone who acts on behalf of seniors needs to always remember that the money they are managing is not theirs,” Amoruso says. “The lines can often get gray, so do your best to keep things clean and clear. The key is make sure that everything you do is in your parents’ best interest.”