Opinion: To start the year right have 'the talk' with your aging parents

"Life can change that fast, and failing to plan only makes painful surprises more painful," Rob Lowe writes.

Story highlights

  • Seventy percent who reach 65 will need long-term care, but few plan for it, Rob Lowe says
  • Lowe says to talk with your parents about what they would like to do if they need such care
  • Long-term care often is needed because Americans are living longer, Lowe says

Rob Lowe is an actor and the author of "Love Life" and "Stories I Only Tell My Friends." He is also in partnership with Genworth, the Long Term Care & Life Insurance Solutions company. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)You need look no further than the glut of beautiful, young and immortal vampires and permanently incapacitated zombies overpopulating our culture to see that America has issues when it comes to aging.

We want to be forever vital, self-sufficient and powerful, like the vampires of "Twilight," and we are fearful of aging into the semi-sentient zombies of "The Walking Dead." The good news is, when it comes to thinking about how we age, taking action early significantly increases one's odds for a better result and aging on our own terms.
    So, as you think about the new year and you get together with your family, let's have "the talk" -- the adult version of the birds and the bees -- a discussion of how we want to care for our parents and how we ourselves, in the prime of our lives, want to age, and how to accomplish those goals with long-term care planning.
    Staying silent could mean getting caught off guard. That's what happened to my family. When my dad was 50, he won our local golf and tennis championship and was diagnosed with lymphoma, all within a matter of days. Life can change that fast, and failing to plan only makes painful surprises more painful.
    Later, when my mother fell ill, my brothers and I had the ability to take time from work to care for her and provide help when we were unable.
    Many families don't have this kind of flexibility. The time and cost of caring for a loved one can be both rewarding beyond measure and financially and emotionally debilitating. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 70% of those who reach 65 years old will need long-term care of some kind. The time to plan is now, and planning begins with family discussions about what many of us will need as we age.
    Long-term care is not end-of-life care. Millions of older adults rely on it for help with day-to-day activities -- everything from getting dressed in the morning to cleaning the house to running the most basic errands. The majority of that care occurs in the home, and who doesn't want to say in their home?
    This care is in increasingly high demand in large part because of how much longer and fuller older Americans' lives have become thanks to a half-century of advances in health and medicine. In short, our increased life spans have also increased the likelihood of suffering from certain diseases and conditions that often require long-term care -- from Alzheimer's or dementia to a heart attack or stroke.
    Families need to plan ahead because the cost of long-term care can get extremely expensive -- especially for nursing home care, with median costs of $87,000 a year nationally and even higher. Even when friends or family provide "unpaid" care, they often spend their own money and give up their personal time and even jobs to do so.
    Many people mistakenly believe that Medicare or the Affordable Care Act cover long-term care. They don't. Neither do the vast majority of health insurance policies. That's why it's so important to have a plan.
    This year, I partnered with Genworth to launch the "Let's Talk" tour to raise awareness about the importance and benefits of long-term care planning. As an alternative to paying out of pocket, long-term care insurance reimburses you for some of the cost of that care.
    More important than how we choose to plan ahead is that we chose to do it. Getting the advice we need starts with taking the time to sit down with loved ones and have the necessary talk about how we want to age.
    Sure, it's not exactly a traditional conversation for the new year, but having it is an indication of your care and an articulation of your love. In that light, this time of year is the perfect time to have the talk about long-term care. If you're watching vampires and zombies, like my family will be, go ahead and take advantage of that next commercial break to have "the talk."