Chris Heye, Ph.D., is founder and CEO of Whealthcare Planning and Whealthcare Solutions, and an FPA member.
Money can be a challenging topic to discuss with clients, especially when it becomes interwoven with concerns about health, aging, or memory loss. Most people are sensitive when it comes to talking about personal finances, as sensitive as they are when discussing a medical condition. When people talk about money, they can become emotional. Money topics invariably involve feelings of independence, self-worth, control, and power.
Because the typical financial adviser client is now in their 60s, discussions about retirement or investing invariably involve considerations about the health of one or more family members. In fact, for most age 50-plus clients and their families, money and health are so closely intertwined that it is virtually impossible to talk about one without mentioning the other.
But since few advisers have received training in these types of extra-monetary discussions, plans for health events or memory loss are typically at best inadequate and reactive, and at worst completely absent. Failure to sufficiently plan for health events, including (and especially) diminished decision-making capacity, puts both the client and the adviser at risk.1
As is often the case, the first step in addressing a problem is to start talking about it. So how can advisers more successfully initiate and sustain productive client conversations about finances, health, and memory loss? I touched on some of these issues in a previous article I wrote for the Journal of Financial Planning on financial planning during COVID-19.2 I received a positive response to that article, so I decided to expand on some of the points related to client communication.
Start early. Most people don’t want to think about the downsides of getting older. Then at some point, they are hit with a challenge. It’s always better to be proactive rather than reactive. Start having conversations and making plans early—ideally when clients are still healthy and before a crisis occurs, i.e., when they are in their 50s, or 60s at the latest. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Show empathy. Empathy entails the understanding of another person’s reality. Put yourself in your client’s shoes and attempt to see the world as they do. Chances are you already know someone who is struggling with health or cognitive issues, perhaps a close relative or spouse. Think about how you would like that person to be treated, and then treat your clients the same way.
Create an alliance. The goal is to establish an alliance with the person you are speaking with. Alliances help to build trust, and when someone trusts you, they will be much more likely to take your advice.
Be respectful. Above all else, respect your clients, especially those who are aging and losing abilities they used to have. Remember that someday you may be in their position.
Since the ability to make good decisions can change quickly and unexpectedly, it is essential to have regular client discussions, especially with family members who are still in charge of making impactful financial decisions. It is especially important to have conversations about ensuring that older family members are making safe financial decisions and deciding how and when to transition decision making to other trusted individuals.
Conversation Tip 1: Acknowledge the Difficult Nature of the Discussion
When having discussions with a client about health and money, it is helpful to let them know that you understand the difficult nature of the subject before starting the conversation. It is important to respect how hard these types of conversations are for older adults, many of whom have been managing their finances—and lives—successfully for decades.
“If the listener’s defensive stance is addressed from the outset, they often stop having it,” advises Hilary Illick, life coach and Emmy-award winning writer. “You might say, ‘I want to talk to you about something that might feel like I am trying to take away control from you’. There is something about naming the concerns for the listener that makes it easier for them to drop those concerns and to discuss the subject with greater openness.”
This approach invariably involves showing empathy. When acknowledging the difficult nature of the discussion, put yourself in the other person’s position. Listen to them describe where they are in their life—where the smooth parts are, where the rough patches lie, where the obstacles are.
Give them the kind of advice that you would like to receive if you were in their position. Show them that you are on their side and that your number one concern is their physical and financial safety.
Conversation Tip 2: Ask Open-Ended Questions
Many older clients are reluctant to give up control over financial decision making, even when it may no longer be safe for them to be making decisions on their own.
“When confronted with these situations, I frequently respond by asking open-ended questions aimed at starting a dialog,” counsels Dr. Anthony Weiner. “This encourages individuals to re-examine their attitudes in a non-confrontational way.” Open-ended questions cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no,” and instead require the person to elaborate on their thoughts and opinions.
Asking open-ended questions is also a good way to get family members to tell you their stories. Storytelling is a very powerful and proven method of communication. Scientists believe the human mind evolved with storytelling, and stories resonate deeply in everyone. Stories are usually a much more effective method of communication than just presenting facts or arguments.
“You just notice the feeling in the room—how they relax when they start telling their stories,” explains psychiatrist and New York Times bestselling author Dr. Edward “Ned” Hallowell. “Folks in their 60s, 70s, and 80s have a lot of stories to tell. They will light up like a Christmas tree when they realize they are teaching you, explaining something to you. Once they have told you important parts of their story, they almost automatically convey trust in you.”
Conversation Tip 3: Talk About the Consequences of NOT Talking
You may know a client who has reached an age where they are mentally slipping but refuse to acknowledge it. This person often does not want to allow others to help with, and eventually take control of, their finances.
If a client resists your efforts to discuss a transfer of decision-making authority, get them to discuss the pros and cons of their decisions. Help them acknowledge the risks of not having a plan for the health-related issues that can affect the quality of their financial decision making. Point out the risks of ignoring inevitable changes to their physical, mental, and behavioral health as they get older.
It’s best to start planning now while they still have some measure of control over the situation. Emphasize that if they wait, their decisions may be governed by others—family members, doctors, courts—and perhaps not with the outcome they would like. “The reality is that if you talk to a family member about their health now, they will actually have more control over financial decision-making in the future than if you wait until ‘bad things’ happen,” explains Weiner.
Completing the estate planning documents that help ensure sound financial and health decision making in the future, including a power of attorney, will, living will, and healthcare proxy, is an important part of preserving client decision-making control. COVID-19 has increased concerns about personal health, especially among older adults, so now is a perfect time to talk to clients about preparing for the health events they will inevitably face, including drafting these legal documents.
There may come a time when you need more help, either from colleagues, other client family members, or professional specialists. If the situation warrants it, strive to build a team that can share the responsibilities. “A really good suggestion,” says Hallowell, “is to follow one of my basic rules and never worry alone.”
And finally, be patient. The goal is not to complete the entire conversation in one session. Don’t feel like you need to cover everything at once. These conversations can be exhausting for all involved, especially older adults. Once you have made progress, it is fine to say “I am glad we got this conversation started today. Let’s pick up on this subject again soon.”
- For more on the ways that failure to plan for diminished decision making can harm planners, see Heye, C. “How to Protect Your Client—and Firm—from the Risks of Diminished Capacity.” Journal of Financial Planning 34 (4): 31–36.
- Heye, C. 2020. “Health and Aging Planning in a Post-Pandemic World.” Journal of Financial Planning 33 (7): 30–32.