Few people gleefully anticipate the task of caring for an aging parent—but plenty seem to deny that it's coming. Sooner or later, avoidance can thrust adult children into the caregiver role with a shotgun start. A parent's slip in the bathroom or a collision caused by a mistake in the driver's seat can precipitate a deluge of anguished decisions and rapid changes you're not ready to handle. Suddenly, you could be scrambling to locate account numbers to pay Mom's bills while she's in the hospital, tangling with her insurance company to figure out why coverage for an X-ray was denied, and consulting with your brother—who lives three states away—about getting Mom into an assisted-living facility. You grapple with guilt because your mother never wanted to move out of her home, but now her condition leaves little choice. As the drama plays out, you're also trying to stay afloat at work and look after your other dependents, the kids.
The first step toward avoiding such baptism by fire is to acknowledge you'll most likely take on caregiving responsibilities someday. According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, the number of "unpaid family caregivers" is set to reach 37 million by 2050, an 85 percent increase from the year 2000. You can help your parents stay happily independent as long as possible if you start those tough conversations now and do some thorough preparation. Here's a game plan.