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How my mother's Alzheimer's disease changed my life — and my practice

When I began my financial advisory practice at age 23 with the Barnum Financial Group after graduating from college and getting an MBA, life could not have been better. Business was going well — I qualified for the Million Dollar Round Table, a prestigious worldwide association of life insurance and financial professionals, in 2015, and was among the firm’s leading performers in both 2015 and 2016.

But my life changed dramatically a year later when my mother was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease at age 61. It caught our family by surprise, and I remember my dad calling my brother and me to break the sad news to us. It was a total shock because I never thought my mom had any sort of cognitive disorder.

Like most people in that situation, it took a little time to regain our equilibrium. None of us knew exactly what steps we should be taking. I had to shake off the inertia and try to think things through. I realized that as a financial advisor, my most valuable contribution would be learning what we could and should do financially to prepare for a much different future for our mom and family.

I set out on what turned out to be a pretty rapid learning curve. I discovered that Alzheimer’s, with its progressive stages that stretch into decades, is the most expensive disease in America, It was clear that our family needed a long-term financial plan that would meet changing needs as the disease advanced and address issues such as care giving, long term care, housing and possible life insurance for family caregivers.

Doug Maclean had a 'pretty steep learning curve' when Alzheimer's disease struck his mother.

We needed to take steps that would be beneficial for any family: organizing documents such as wills, power of attorney, medical records, financial statements, and beneficiaries on any life insurance policies. We had multiple family meetings with our lawyers to discuss my father getting power of attorney for my mom. All existing estate documents and directives were reviewed and updated where necessary. I remember how difficult and emotionally draining those meetings were. I never imagined having end-of life discussions with my parents, but they wanted my brother and I to be there every step of the way, and I am glad that we were.

My ongoing research drew me into contact with a range of professionals in fields such as home care, adult day services, assisted living centers, and nursing homes, and I got an idea of the costs as well as the services provided. While all this was done on behalf of my mother, I was gaining in-depth perspective that could benefit many individuals and families who have a family member or friend with Alzheimer’s.

When I begin my work with clients at Barnum now, whether Alzheimer’s is present or not, I am much more aware and sensitive to different challenges that can arise. I try to meet with the entire family, including children, so that everyone has a full picture of possible needs and solutions. The need for long-term care is raised at every meeting.

If research is needed, I always start it by consulting the websites of the Alzheimer's Association and the National Institute on Aging. I also attend local seminars and the Alzheimer’s Association Annual Conference at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut every spring.

The prospect of illnesses and disabilities may seem like difficult topics to raise with a client. But I’ve found they are almost always on people’s minds already because they do not want to be an unnecessary burden on their loved ones. And once those issues are out in the open, the conversation can lead into topics like the need for physical fitness, regular medical checkups and long-term planning.

As I found with our family’s situation, difficult as it was and is, knowledge is power.

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