Updated Saturday, December 27, 2014 as of 5:52 AM ET

How to Talk With Clients About Aging

AUG 12, 2014
10:41am ET
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About five years ago, Kathleen Pritchard's father-in-law learned he had Alzheimer's.

At the time, she says, he was the 73-year-old CEO of a hospital, with an $8 million account at Merrill Lynch.

So Pritchard -- head of business development for Legg Mason -- and her husband and his father met with the father's broker, asking what this financial advisor could do to help.

"He threw up his hands," says Pritchard, speaking at LPL Financial's annual Focus conference in San Diego, "and said, 'I basically don't do any of that. I just manage your dad's money.'"

Pritchard, who knew both the broker and his employer, pulled him aside and told him he had numerous resources at Merrill available to help him help her father-in-law. "I gave him three names of people he could call," Pritchard recalls. "Do you think he called any of those people?"

Now, she says, the broker may be regretting his inaction: "Do you think there's one dime of that money left in that Merrill Lynch account?"

RETAINING ASSETS

Pritchard shared the findings of a Legg Mason study on aging clients to show planners how they can use one of the most difficult client conversations to both help clients age "with control and dignity" and retain client assets and build their businesses.

Pritchard's experience with an advisor who dropped the ball helped inspire her work on the study, she says.

Her father-in-law died recently, she says, but without having done much planning for his substantial estate. His final years were difficult, she says, and relations between his surviving family members are now in tatters.

BETTER OPTIONS

But there are many things advisors can do to help their clients, says Pritchard, who spelled out several for the LPL advisors in attendance.

Have the conversations early. Although planning tends to focus heavily on retirement goals, an injury or an illness can disrupt the plan. Once a plan becomes derailed, she says, planners should discuss end-of-life goals while clients are still relatively healthy. Even if a client is reluctant, try as many times as it takes to initiate a conversation about aging.

Discuss the client's support network. These relationships, defined as non-family socialization, are more important than even physical health to determining happiness and longevity in your clients' later years.

Do the math on housing. Find out if your client wants to age at home -- as most people do -- or at an independent living community, in assisted living or in skilled nursing, she says. And know the cost of each option. She spelled out a few of the national cost averages:

  • $3,000 a month to rent in an independent treatment community.
  • Just under $3,500 a month for one person, or about $5,600 for a couple, to live in an assisted living facility.
  • $5,800 monthly, after an equity buy-in, to live in a continuing care retirement community.
  • $6,900 a month for skilled nursing care.

One thing to keep in mind: If your client is suffering from memory problems, comparatively few communities are equipped to take them. Those that do have special wings for residents with memory impairment, and many of these have long waiting lists for new residents. If you expect to be looking for one of these centers, urge your client to sign up on waiting lists early on in the search process.

HOUSING ISSUES

Housing options can be a particular challenge for planners.

If your clients want to age at home, they should consider a redesign so that their home is fully functional for someone with progressive physical ailments. Some suggested changes include doorways wide enough for wheelchairs to pass, single-floor living, flat entrances in and out of the home and railings where needed on stairs and in bathrooms.

Remember that the costs of aging at home, especially over the long term, can far exceed those of other options, Pritchard says. Often it can require as many as three caregivers, rotating in and out of the home, with housecleaners to scrub out bathrooms and change sheets between each shift. And if any caregiver can't make a shift on a given day, then it falls to the client's family members to interrupt their own lives and step in to help.

For clients, without kids, or those determined not to overburden their kids, a continuing care community can be "nirvana," she says. These facilities let residents live independently until they need assisted care and ultimately skilled nursing -- all in the same facility. Some sit on golf courses, with tennis courts and riding stables, and offer abundant activities and a restaurant-style dining hall.

But they're not cheap: First clients must purchase an equity buy-in, which can range from tens of thousands of dollars to more than $1 million, depending on the quality of the facility.

Pritchard says her own housing discussions with her mother were particularly difficult. When she finally arranged for her mother to move to an assisted living facility -- against the older woman's wishes -- her mother stopped speaking to her for three years, Pritchard says.

Finally, she says, she got a call from her mother. "I'm sorry. I love it here," Pritchard recalls her saying. "Our only regret is that we didn't move her sooner."

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