Addressing client dementia

Advisers should look for patterns and have a process in place

May 14, 2014 @ 11:45 am

By Jeff Benjamin

Advisers have little training on working with older clients, but they need to be vigilant about certain realities that should not be ignored, including signs of dementia.

“My grandmother had Alzheimer's, and she was one of my first clients,” said Steve Starnes, a financial adviser at Savant Capital Management.

Mr. Starnes shared his insights on how to work with families and approach certain age-related health issues in Chicago on Tuesday as part of the InvestmentNews Retirement Income Summit.

During his session, he pointed out that one out of 10 men and one out of five women will suffer from some form of dementia. And half of individuals over the age of 85 are at risk of developing Alzheimer's.

Among the keys to dealing with it from a financial adviser's perspective, is being familiar enough with clients to recognize some of the early signs of dementia, and then not being afraid to address the issue head-on.

“You should look for things like memory lapses, disorganization, difficulty with names and declines in checkbook management skill,” Mr. Starnes said.

Part of the process of being able to identify the early signs of dementia is the often-uncomfortable matter of confronting the situation with the client and the client's family.

“You might have to advise a client to go see a doctor, and you will have to be delicate,” he said. “Don't just come out and say, 'I think you're losing your marbles.'”

Even though his firm has developed a process and continues to work on better ways to communicate with clients about health-related issues, Mr. Starnes said it usually is an awkward or less-than-pleasant experience.

“Talking about money and talking about dementia is not a fun topic, but I can tell you, for the families that do, it makes everything a lot easier to deal with,” he said. “We've worked to enlighten staff with some communication tips. And you should take some notes and have a process for dealing with something the next time it happens.”

Part of what makes the issue so delicate is the fact that it might be easy to mistake simple absentmindedness for something more serious.

And, whether you're seeing early signs of dementia or not, the client is not likely to welcome the news that his or her adviser is recommending a visit to the doctor's office.

“Don't use any excuses to put off the conversation, and encourage clients to see a doctor, because it could even be something that's treatable,” Mr. Starnes said. “We all forget things sometimes, but we're talking about recognizing a pattern of decline over time. Our goal is not to diagnose.”

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