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Voices

When advising clients means taking action they don’t like

One in three seniors in America dies with Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia, according to the nonprofit Alzheimer’s Association. These diseases kill more people than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined.

In 2018, Alzheimer’s and related disorders will cost the U.S. $277 billion, and by 2050, these costs could reach as high as $1.1 trillion. Currently, 5.7 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s. And by 2050, up to 14 million people could be victims of this disease.

Dementia-Adobe

Clearly, the problem of Alzheimer’s and related dementia is not going away. In fact, it’s getting worse every year. Someone in the U.S. develops Alzheimer’s every 65 seconds.

Why do I care about this? Because, like that of many financial planners, the demographic of my practice skews older. For many of my clients—and many of yours—these statistics are more than a graph or a table in a report; they are a description of real people and their everyday lives.

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There’s a saying that holds, ”They won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” I discovered the truth in this maxim in a powerful way when I was faced with the task of procuring an involuntary mental health commitment for one of my clients.

I’ve deleted names and changed some of the circumstances in order to respect confidentiality, but the underlying message is faithful to how things really happened.

Matters came to a head when this previously gentle man started to speak and act abusively toward his wife.

I had an elderly client, a man, who I had grown to love. He was a financial planning and advising client, and one of the first people to open an account when I launched my firm. Over the years, we succeeded in helping him build a solid portfolio. He and his wife had stuck with our firm through scary days in the market, including the meltdown of 2008. And they celebrated with us during the long bull run that came after. Not only was our professional relationship solid, but there was, without question, a personal element: a mutual loyalty and appreciation that comes with time and shared experiences.

I’ll never forget the first time his wife told me about her concerns for her husband. During one of our regular planning reviews, with her husband out of earshot, she leaned toward me and said, “Kimberly, I didn’t want to say this in front of Jack, but lately I’ve noticed that he is forgetting things.” She went on to say that her husband of 50-plus years had begun to exhibit many of the classic symptoms of dementia: repeating a question that had been asked and answered in the past 15 minutes; frequently forgetting the day of the week; telling the same story to the same people within a short time period; forgetting how to use the TV remote; and other lapses in cognition that her husband had not exhibited previously. I could see the concern on her face, but he soon returned to the room and we resumed our conference. I soon put the worry aside.

Alzheimer’s and related disorders costs the U.S. $277 billion, and by 2050, it could reach as high as $1.1 trillion.

Over time, his symptoms worsened. Matters came to a head when this previously gentle man started to speak and act abusively toward his wife. It was clear that this cruel disease was robbing him of everything that made him the person his family and friends loved and admired. Soon, a medical diagnosis confirmed what we all feared.

Everyone knew that this elderly client needed to be housed in a facility equipped to keep him and those around him safe. His wife couldn’t bring herself to take the necessary actions, nor could her children. They asked me to act on their behalf, to request an evaluation for involuntary commitment to a mental health facility. In California, where I live and practice, the part of the state Welfare and Institutions Code governing this matter falls under Section 5150. The family was asking me to take the responsibility of reporting him for a “5150.”

To say that this was a heart wrenching experience would be a massive understatement. Here was a client about whom I cared deeply, as I did his entire family. And yet, because of that very personal relationship, I was also the person who would deprive him of his independence and freedom of movement, although not by his choice, but by necessity. As planner and advisor, I could plainly see what had to be done. As his friend, I could hardly bear the thought that I had to be the one to do it.

Cases like these are when the advising relationship becomes intensely personal. It is no longer about portfolio performance benchmarks, risk tolerance, asset mix, or minimum required distributions. It goes beyond reviewing wills and trust documents and meeting with the CPAs and attorneys. At such times, the relationship becomes one human being caring enough for the other to take an action that, while necessary, is also intensely uncomfortable — to show in unmistakable terms how much you care.

I hope that no one who is reading this is ever placed in the position of having to look into the eyes of a respected client and tell them that they must surrender their independence for the sake of their own well-being. But I firmly believe that the personal commitment to each client that lies behind such an action is absolutely essential if we are to uphold our claim that we place our clients’ interests above our own. In the final analysis, upholding that claim is what differentiates us from all the rest.

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