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‘If [older clients] show up and they feel welcome, that they’re understood, and they participate in the conversation, then there’s a real sense that they’re still in control of their lives – and that’s such an important part of life at that age,’ says Paul Bourbonniere, investment advisor at Industrial Alliance Securities Inc.

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This article is the second in a two-part series on how advisors can adapt their practices to serve older clients better. The first article looked at how simple changes to a physical office could help people with age-related disabilities.

There are many facets to making a financial advisory office accessible to older clients. One of the most critical is making sure that financial advisors and their team members have the requisite knowledge and skills to work with these investors most effectively.

“If [older clients] show up and they feel welcome, that they’re understood, and they participate in the conversation, then there’s a real sense that they’re still in control of their lives – and that’s such an important part of life at that age,” says Paul Bourbonniere, partner and investment advisor with the Polson Bourbonniere Derby Wealth Management team at HollisWealth, a division of Industrial Alliance Securities Inc., in Markham, Ont. “It’s just good, smart business sense to empathize and appreciate where these folks are coming from.”

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To start, you may want to remind staff who don’t have disabilities that the community of people with disabilities refers to them as temporarily able-bodied. “It doesn’t matter whether you do a face plant while you’re skiing and you end up in a wheelchair when you’re 17 [years old], or you’re 80 [years old] and you need a walker, you’re going to have a disability. The only question is when and for how long,” points out Brad McCannell, vice-president, access and inclusion, at the Rick Hansen Foundation. That can be a strong reminder to treat others as you would wish to be treated.

To get the message across even more powerfully, you could provide team members with the opportunity to experience first-hand some of the disabilities older clients may have. A simulation-training program can give staff a chance to spend time in a wheelchair, in goggles that mimic the effects of macular degeneration, or in a noisy room that makes it difficult to hear what the person next to you is saying.

“Having that experience, even for an hour or two, changes your whole perspective,” says Mr. McCannell. “It makes you understand that we’re just people in here – and we’re people first.”

Hans Uli Egger, accessibility assessor at the Rick Hansen Foundation, emphasizes the importance of using people-first language. It’s a subtle shift that can make a big difference to attitudes among staff, he says. Simply avoid saying “disabled person” or “old person.” Instead, flip the phrase around and say, “person with a disability” or “person with a lot of life experience”; that puts the person, not their condition or age, first.

Putting the person first also means that advisors and their teams should tread carefully when a client brings a family member or friend along to meetings, says Mary Schulz, director, information, support services and education at the Alzheimer Society of Canada. Clarify the companion’s role – he or she may just be the driver – and even if the companion is there to participate in the discussion, avoid shifting too much of your focus away from the client.

“It’s not uncommon, even with people who are savvy in this area, to look at and address questions to the person who seems to be more engaged, making more eye contact,” says Ms. Schulz. “We need to remember who’s the client. … To do otherwise is to send a message [to the client] that [he or she is] no longer really capable and [he or she is] now taking the back seat.”

To communicate in no uncertain terms that your office treats everyone with dignity, Ms. Schulz suggests posting the Alzheimer Society of Canada’s Charter of Rights for People with Dementia. “It sends a clear message to anybody who knows someone with dementia, has dementia themselves, or is caring for someone with dementia [that] you are not going to be given any different treatment in this office than you would if you didn’t have dementia – accommodations notwithstanding – and that you will be participating and involved in making decisions that affect your life to the extent that you can, for as long as you can.”

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Be aware that seniors may need an extra level of service. Mr. Bourbonniere offers older clients the option of house calls – something he says is usually accepted gratefully. “It’s more time for us on the road, but overall, I think it’s valuable,” he says. “It’s useful, too, because we get to see clients in their own surroundings and can look for tell-tale signs of decline because of age – [for example,] how the place is kept.”

Even if clients are still happy to meet at your office, staff can take an extra few minutes to ensure they get on their way safely.

“Say, ‘You know what, why don’t I walk you down? It’s good for me to stretch my legs,’” suggests Ms. Schulz. “Don’t assume they’re going to be able to retrace their steps, get to the curb, flag a cab, get in the cab, tell the cab where they’re going, where they live.”

Perhaps the key message is that assumptions of all kinds can be risky. Assume older clients don’t need help and they may head elsewhere because they find your practice too difficult to work with. Assume they do and you may offend someone who’s trying very hard to stay independent. When in doubt, Mr. McCannell suggests, pose the question to your client.

“I get asked all the time, ‘What’s the best way to help a person with a disability?’ he says. “Just ask. They’ll tell you. The trick is to listen.”

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