A decade ago, Pam Bryden had every reason to anticipate an inheritance from her well-to-do parents. Now she's more concerned about whether they will run out of money, and whether she and her husband might need to renovate their house in case his parents need to move in.

"It's fair to say that my expectations have changed a lot," said Bryden, 46, of Minnetonka.

For millions of Americans, even those of some means, a confluence of factors has created a seismic shift in their economic outlook. Not only have skyrocketing health care costs and increased longevity created a need for more retirement money, but huge hits to home values and retirement-fund accounts have drained assets from seniors and their offspring. An American family's average net worth has fallen to $77,000, about the same as 20 years ago.

Small wonder that all but the wealthiest have moved from an "inheritance" society to "let's make sure Mom and Dad have enough to live out their lives" scenario.

"There's no question that 10 years ago people were expecting greater inheritances than they are now," said Kay Kramer, co-owner of Edina-based KLB Financial. "With very few exceptions people don't want to count on anything, and we've got some people who are actively helping parents out because they don't have enough."

KLB client Ray Stacey is doing just that, at age 44. The son of an immigrant father and working-class mother, he is now a vice president at Best Buy. "I've been able to succeed based on my parents' sacrifices," he said.

Since their current income is almost entirely from Social Security, Stacey said he is working with them on their housing and "making sure there is that safety net, so if and when something does come about, it's not degrading their standard of living."

Stacey said he always has known that he would help his parents in retirement and has "made tradeoffs. ... For example: I don't have a cabin, so I can support my parents and have some retirement for myself."

Still, most of his peers are only beginning to confront these circumstances.

'The new reality'

Amy Lieberman, president of Estate Matters, a Minneapolis-based company that helps families navigate the complex issues of aging and transition, calls the current situation "the perfect storm of parents who thought their kids would inherit something but never thought they would live this long, or need this much money for health care."

The statistics are daunting on both counts: Health expenditures in the United States neared $2.6 trillion in 2010, more than 10 times the $256 billion spent in 1980, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. And for those who reach age 65, 40 percent of the men and 53 percent of the women will live to at least 85.

"Longevity is the new reality," said Kim Brown, president of Bloomington-based JNBA Financial Advisors. "When we do plans for people, we do them to age 95. The most important thing people can do is have a conversation with their family about where people are at financially."

That's where all manner of human foibles enter the picture, she added. First off, older folks in general and the so-called Greatest Generation in particular are a proud and private lot. "That generation is the most afraid of disappointing kids," Brown said, "and we live in a society where adults are supposed to take care of themselves."

For the younger generation, this can be an exceedingly difficult topic to address. "I don't think anybody in my peer group has had that conversation," Bryden said. "But I don't want to stick my head in the sand. I want to be ready."

Still, she expressed unease at how she might broach the subject. For those ready and willing to take that on, JNBA's Brown recommends a somewhat subtle approach.

"We suggest starting with things that aren't threatening," she said, "like 'Mom and Dad, do you have a living will?' or 'If you get sick, how would you like things handled?' rather than 'How much money do you have?' "

Thinking long-term

Not every family is scaling back. Lieberman said she has worked "with a family whose parents clearly tell their kids that they are spending their inheritance on the life they now deserve. The children are happy their parents will have that opportunity."

Bryden is also glad her parents are traveling while they can, "but I worry a little about the long term."

The boomers might be less likely to spend their retirement years breezing across Tuscany. Fewer of them have pensions, and most of them have seen their own assets take a huge hit. In a recent Bank of America survey, just 55 percent of wealthy boomers said it's important to leave an inheritance, compared with 73 percent of those over 67.

It's natural to attribute the boomers' stance to their longstanding reputation as the "Me Generation." But the nation's 77 million boomers also have seen parents or friends' parents outlive their savings in what were supposed to be "the golden years," and they "are determined not to be a burden to their kids," Lieberman said, so more of them have living wills and other plans.

"For our parents' generation, long-term health insurance was a new thing, and few have it," Lieberman said. "Boomers will be different in that area."

And what about the next generation(s)? "They might be in a worse position," Brown said.

Lieberman agreed, especially given that so many people marry later in life and often have children at age 40 or beyond. "You see a lot of 10-year-olds with a parent who's 55," Lieberman said. "Those older parents will live longer and be healthier, but a 70-year-old is a 70-year-old."

So rather than expecting to be bequeathed a house or cabin or big bucks, most of us, Brown said, "are kind of playing to now. We're playing to an even-end game."

That's certainly the mind-set of Bill Abrahamson, 49, of Lakeland. His parents are 82 and 70 and "have no wealth to speak of and will be fine until some medical catastrophe strikes. For the middle-class 40-plus crowd, that is the fear, that health problems associated with the elderly will strip the parents and their children of whatever assets they have.

"I came into this world with nothing, and that's how I'm going to leave it. I, like my father, do not want to leave with a burden of personal debt to my children," Abrahamson said.

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643