Hiding Alzheimer's, like Gene Wilder did, is natural, so prepare for it with all clients

Because cognitive impairment is likely for most people as they age, advisers shouldn't wait for signs to start planning

Sep 1, 2016 @ 1:25 pm

By Liz Skinner

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Funny man Gene Wilder, who died Monday at age 83 from complications due to Alzheimer's disease, kept his illness hidden from most people for at least three years. That's a common approach, experts said.

The star of Blazing Saddles, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Producers, and many other notable comedies, reportedly wanted his fans to keep laughing over his life's work instead of feeling down about his failing condition.

(Feature: Unraveling Minds)

Most Alzheimer's sufferers hide symptoms for as long as possible out of fear they'll lose control of their own lives if their family or friends think they can no longer take care of the things they've always handled, said Carolyn Rosenblatt, a registered nurse and elder law attorney. Patients who have advanced education or who have used their brains the most during their careers can usually hide the disease the longest, she said.

“The first thing for advisers to recognize is that cognitive impairment is a significant risk for every client,” said Ms. Rosenblatt, who authored a book with geriatric psychologist Dr. Mikol Davis, “Succeed with Senior Clients: A Financial Advisor's Guide to Best Practices” (AgingInvestor.com, 2016).

They conclude that financial advisers should take steps to protect their clients' finances from the impact of debilitating conditions like Alzheimer's disease and other cognitive impairments before the adviser notices changes in their behavior or attitude. In part because dementia and Alzheimer's are so prevalent among the elderly, fraudsters often target older individuals because they can be more easily cajoled into turning over funds or compromising their personal information.

“The elderly are sitting ducks for financial abuse,” Ms. Rosenblatt said.

The first thing advisers should have in place for each client is a document that identifies other family members or friends the adviser can contact to discuss private information if the adviser thinks the client is starting to have cognitive difficulties.

(More: Oscars shine light on Alzheimer's costs)

Firms can put in place a process to have this completed when clients turn 50, or at retirement, or any milestone they choose, but it should be uniform among clients, Ms. Rosenblatt said.

Addressing the issue with clients is admittedly tough, but doing it early and across the board makes sense.

“It's difficult for the adviser to have this conversation because it requires talking about the client not being at the top of their game, and they often get pushback,” Mr. Davis said.

Clients may need some time to think about such a difficult issue, but if they refuse to provide the contacts, they should be required to sign a different document that releases the adviser from liability if the client is harmed because of their cognitive decline, Ms. Rosenblatt said.

Additionally, advisers should have a checklist they fill out annually about clients to keep track of changes and document those over time. When advisers start to see certain “red flags,” such as clients appearing to have memory loss or not understanding the consequences of decisions, they should consider whether it's time to start including one of those trusted contacts in planning meetings, Mr. Davis said.

Tom West, a financial adviser who specializes in working with clients who have dementia and other cognitive issues at his firm Signature Estate & Investment Advisors, said as the industry moves toward a uniform fiduciary standard for retirement advice, this will become an even bigger issue.

(More: Early detection of Alzheimer's would allow for better financial planning)

Advisers need to adapt to the changing circumstances of the client and that includes making sure portfolio risk continues to be in line with what the client is doing and saying, he said.

“Advisers can use the change in behavior as a reason to say to the client that it's time to bring the family in and do a new investment strategy report,” Mr. West said.

In the end, financial advisers often have one of the longest standing relationships in the lives of their clients, so they are in a great position to see their personality or habits change, Mr. Davis said.

“There needs to be a culture change within investment advisers' perspective of what they do in their job to their clients,” he said. “They need to be willing to step up and go beyond managing their money to keeping them safe from potentially being abused by others.”

Financial planners also will need to become more skilled at suggesting clients see a doctor about some of the memory issues they observe without provoking the client too much.

“Having a financial adviser tell you he thinks you might have dementia is almost never well received,” Mr. West said. “But describe what you observed very narrowly and let the client know there could be many other causes for this lapse, such as a medication or sleep issue.”

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