FICS Editors' Note

The editors of Fidelity Interactive Content Services (FICS) selected this content because it offers valuable information for investors.

A reflective take on aging

See how to foster closeness and connection around money and family as you age.

Key takeaways

  • Aging is not a surprise—we can proactively plan with our families.
  • Aging impacts our thinking about Money→Wealth→Estate Planning topics.
  • Aging is a human and vulnerable experience that can create closeness or distance.
  • Aging topics and experiences set up a continuing agenda for family dialogue.

Money→Wealth→Estate Planning is a developmental continuum through which all of life passes. From birth to death, questions and decisions around finances are ever-present, incremental, and increasingly complex. "Developmental" refers to how people's thinking, feelings, and behavior change through time. Through this lens, every life stage is an opportunity for families to learn and grow together.

When it comes to financial planning and decision making, it’s easy to step over the significance of the aging experience and allow functional planning and plan execution to be the singular focus. When that happens, there can be an incongruence between what your family is doing and saying related to Money→Wealth→Estate Planning decisions and what people are feeling and experiencing.

No matter where you are in the aging journey, from starting to think about it to being in your later years, you have an opportunity to engage your family in dialogue—talking through topics for shared meaning. Together, you can explore the all-of-life aspects of the aging experience as it relates to your financial matters. You can also build capabilities for talking through harder, more emotionally charged topics that sometimes arise later in life.

The challenge is that as we age, our gravity—forces that keep us locked in existing patterns of behavior—creates rigidity and absolutes in how we think, act, and interact. Unless we are reflective and intentional, this gravity can have unintended consequences. For example, we may be resistant to other points of view, to receiving help at points of need, or to having necessary life-stage conversations. In turn, this resistance may create distance in our relationships or lead us to delay important decisions.

By adopting a proactive approach, you can more reflectively break free of your gravity and begin a family dialogue about aging-related Money→Wealth→Estate Planning decisions. We consider reflection the “source of all growth and change.” By taking time to reflect, you can set your family up to learn, grow, and build shared meaning as you move through the aging experience together.

Here are 5 topics for reflection, along with specific prompts, to help you proactively explore your perspectives, experiences, and beliefs about aging.

1. Reflect on what it means to be human as you age

What your family needs most from you as you age is your humanness—a common denominator in all of your relationships. Trying to navigate changing capabilities and roles by being stoic, distant, or isolated makes it challenging to achieve the intimacy that fosters closeness and connection through life transitions.

Being human means reflecting on your limitations and acknowledging your strengths and weaknesses. Cultivate compassion for yourself as a human being who is growing as you experience new stages of life. And know that feeling fearful, vulnerable, uncertain, angry, and overwhelmed is also human.

Talk with family about your experiences and feelings. Lean on them to help you engage in more human Money→Wealth→Estate Planning dialogue around aging.

Reflection Prompts:

  • What human emotions you are experiencing around aging?
  • How are you feeling about aging in relation to your financial planning process?
  • Who are the people you can talk to about aging?
  • What family dialogue do you wish to have about aging?
  • What Money→Wealth→Estate Planning dialogue feels important for your family?
  • Where do you need to be more compassionate toward yourself?

2. Reflect on your story related to aging

We all have a story—our past experiences—and we are all writing our current story. Your “aging story” is made up of the experiences you are currently having and your past exposure to aging in your family and social groups. There is also a Money→Wealth→Estate Planning aspect to your aging story that plays a significant role in shaping how you, your family, and your advisors engage around these matters.

Oftentimes, we view our aging story as a list of physical facts and experiences. Comedians have fun with these lists. But the real story is in the meaningful and emotional parts of our experiences.

Your wishes, fears, capabilities, and plans are all meaningful, and there are significant emotions surrounding each of them. These are the experiences to reflect on with your family so you can explore how your aging story will impact your future thinking and decision making.

Reflection Prompts:

  • What is your story around aging—the meaningful and emotional parts of your story?
  • What is the Money→Wealth→Estate Planning part of your aging story?
  • How is your story influencing the way you engage family members around aging-related topics and decisions?
  • How much of your story about life and aging have you shared with your family?
  • How can your story frame your family dialogue?
  • What story do you want to write about life and aging going forward?

3. Reflect on your defenses to aging vulnerabilities

Aging is a time when vulnerabilities play a central role. We may be faced with a fear of irrelevance or of losing our identity. There is the uncertainty of not knowing how our health will progress. And there is the potential for incapacitation and for becoming dependent on others around our finances and care.

Defenses are protections we use against the risks and emotional exposure we associate with being vulnerable—procrastination, avoidance, anger, justifications, control, withdrawal, partial truths, etc. Our finances can be one of the most vulnerable areas as we age, and we often use defenses with our family and advisors.

The counterintuitive mindset is to lean in and embrace the discomfort of our vulnerabilities as an intentional way to create more dialogue and closeness in our family. To the degree that you can proactively share your vulnerabilities, you will have partners in your aging process.

Reflection Prompts:

  • How do you feel vulnerable in relation to aging?
  • How do you feel vulnerable in relation to Money→Wealth→Estate Planning?
  • What are your common defenses to vulnerability in relation to aging?
  • When do you most often experience defenses? What situations, topics, people, decisions, or feelings prompt a defense for you?
  • How can you bring your vulnerabilities related to aging into your family dialogue?
  • What dialogue can you have with your family about the vulnerabilities you may have in relation to your finances and decision making?

4. Reflect on your tendencies in life and aging

We all have "tendencies"—patterns in how we interact, ways that we do things, habits that describe us, and preferences that shape how others engage us. These tendencies are rooted in our DNA, family history, and life experience. And they tend to get more rigid as we age. In particular, we have tendencies around Money→Wealth→Estate Planning. Who is involved, what roles people play, how transparent we are, how we make decisions, and what the family dialogue looks like are all part of our financial tendencies.

Though our tendencies are almost always evident to other people, we aren't necessarily aware of them all. That's where reflection and dialogue come in. Take time to think about and ask others how you make decisions, who you let in, how you react under stress, your preferences for engagement, and the behaviors you adopt with your family. And most importantly, ask them what tendencies they see in you related to aging.

Reflection Prompts:

  • What tendencies do you think describe you—what would others say?
  • What tendencies are you seeing in yourself around aging?
  • What are your tendencies related to how you engage around Money→Wealth→Estate Planning topics?
  • What are your tendencies when you engage in dialogue with family members?
  • What are your tendencies around stress, tension, or conflict?
  • Where do you see your tendencies getting more rigid as you age?

5. Reflect on your beliefs about aging

As you move into new modes of living and engaging, be mindful that behavior follows belief. Your beliefs are part of the mental models you have constructed through time—your thoughts, assumptions, and stories about how the world works.

As you can imagine, we all have many, many mental models about time, aging, financial independence, family involvement, quality of life, and end of life. And, our mental models interact with other people's mental models whenever we engage around these topics.

Meaningful changes in behavior or engagement begin with examining your beliefs at the mental model level. Ask yourself, "What beliefs about aging are shaping my thoughts, feelings, and choices?" "What beliefs about my finances are impacting my planning, decision making, and family involvement?" Share your insights with others. Get their feedback and perspective. Set up a dialogue and explore their mental models around aging with them.

Reflection Prompts:

  • What beliefs do you have about aging?
  • Where did those beliefs come from?
  • How are they shaping your thinking, feelings, and actions?
  • What beliefs do you have about finances and financial decision making as you age?
  • What are your beliefs about the role of family members as you age?
  • How can you set up a dialogue where you share your insights with your family?

An opportunity to be proactive

What's wonderful about aging is that it unfolds over decades, starting long before your golden years and carrying on well into later life. This creates a long runway for you and your family to work through the changes and emotionally laden decisions that will inevitably arise. By adopting a proactive and reflective approach, you can deepen the dialogue with your family and write a new family narrative around aging. There can be less emphasis on "caring for an aging loved one" and more intimacy around "aging with caring loved ones."

About the authors

Dr. Timothy Habbershon is a managing director of Fidelity Investments. He founded and leads the Fidelity Center for Family Engagement, which helps advisors and families build capabilities for how they engage around money, wealth, and estate planning decisions. For more than 25 years, Dr. Habbershon has been an advisor, consultant, and coach to large family-controlled firms and family offices worldwide. He is an Adjunct Professor at Babson College outside Boston, MA.

Tobias Donath leads the Fidelity Center for Family Engagement in its mission to transform the generational wealth experience. As a thought leader, coach, trainer, and consultant, Tobias supports families and advisors in changing how they engage around money, wealth, and estate planning topics and decisions. In particular, he helps them develop the mindsets and skillsets required for communicating to connect and build relationship capital.