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Make sure your office is accessible to people who are in wheelchairs, have hearing or vision loss, all of which are disabilities that are very common among seniors.

Ridofranz/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

This article is the first in a two-part series on how advisors can adapt their practices to serve older clients better. The second article explores how advisors and their teams can be more sensitive to seniors’ needs.

Would navigating your office be easy if you used a wheelchair, walker or cane? What about if you couldn’t hear or see clearly, or if you found complex instructions difficult to process? For financial advisors who serve an aging client base, these are pressing questions – especially because developing physical and cognitive disabilities becomes more likely as people get older. And if clients aren’t comfortable when they come to meet with you, chances are they’ll stop coming.

“People with dementia, people who use canes, people who are frail, people who are aging, people who have any kind of limitation need to be able to access public spaces in the same way as people who are able-bodied and cognitively intact,” says Mary Schulz, director, information, support services and education at the Alzheimer Society of Canada. “Apart from [an advisor’s] professional duties, due diligence and decency, it’s a human rights issue.”

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The good news is that adapting a space to serve the needs of seniors better could start with simple changes to signage, paint colour, furniture and lighting. And, often, relatively inexpensive fixes made to accommodate people with age-associated disabilities could make an office more welcoming for everyone.

“One of the most important [aspects] of universal design is that it’s not [exclusively] for people with disabilities – it’s just better design,” says Brad McCannell, vice-president, access and inclusion, at the Rick Hansen Foundation.

Mr. McCannell points out that when people think about accessibility, they tend to focus on wheelchairs, but spaces that are rated for the Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification program are audited for ease of use by people with various disabilities, including those that are very common among seniors, such as hearing loss and vision loss.

To assess the experience of visitors who come to your office, start outside the building itself, recommends Hans Uli Egger, accessibility assessor at the Rick Hansen Foundation.

“We were able to get two reserved parking spots right up against the building from our landlord,” 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. “In the wintertime, it’s nice for our clients not to get blown across the parking lot.”

Once inside, are pathways clear and free of tripping hazards? Are doors power-operated? Is it easy to find your office from the lobby?

Find out if you can add a directional sign of your own because, as Ms. Schulz points out, lobbies can be baffling places for people with a cognitive impairment. On your sign, don’t assume anything – including, for example, that visitors can make the leap from “Suite 1605” to “16th Floor.”

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“The rest of us intuit that [fact]; that’s our problem-solving and our ability to draw on past experience. But someone with dementia may just find that enormously confusing,” Ms. Schulz says. “Everyone benefits from a building designed to make it easy to get from point A to point B.”

Once someone arrives in your reception area, make sure additional signs provide clear directions to washrooms, emergency exits and any other spaces your clients may need to find during their visits. Do-it-yourself wayfinding can give older clients a sense of dignity, says Mr. Egger.

Receptionists – and, for that matter, everyone in your practice – could wear a prominent name tag to give older clients one less thing to remember, says Ms. Schulz. “Even if you’ve been this person’s financial advisor for 15 years, don’t make them work for it. [Otherwise, they may] be so focused on trying to remember your name that chances are they’re going to miss the conversation, or at least parts of it.”

When navigating your office, if there are hallways connecting rooms, consider painting the baseboards in a contrasting colour to provide clear sight lines to people who are losing peripheral vision and depth perception, Mr. McCannell recommends. To test the contrast of two colours, simply photocopy paint chips in black and white; you want two very different shades of grey. In addition, Mr. Egger suggests installing a handrail down the hallway, also in a contrasting colour, which can help people with both vision and balance challenges.

Consider the flooring, but be mindful that people with different disabilities have different opinions on what makes an ideal surface, Mr. McCannell says.

“Wheelchair guys, we don’t want anything carpeted, ever – [but] people with hearing loss want everything carpeted all the time,” he says. “Everything in access is a compromise.”

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With carpeting, try for low-pile, closed-loop carpet tiles. With smooth floors, consider treatments to reduce slipperiness or include a “path within a path” using another material.

In terms of meeting spaces, smaller, more intimate rooms can help a client with dementia, says Ms. Schulz. But if you have to meet in a boardroom with a dozen or more chairs, put your client at ease by making it clear where they should go. “Please have a seat right here beside me so that I can hear you well,” she suggests saying.

Mr. Bourbonniere uses a 54-inch flat screen television to make charts and graphs easier for clients to see. He’s also made a simple switch to the seating arrangement. “We’ve positioned our seating so we are not backing on to the windows. So, when [clients] are looking at us, they don’t just see a dark silhouette,” he explains. “It works because they can see our facial expressions.”

In addition to the seating arrangement, the table should have rounded edges and chairs – with and without arms, some wider, some higher – should be available to accommodate different needs, says Mr. McCannell. An audio induction loop over a desk can broadcast a signal that hearing aids pick up, he suggests. That means someone with hearing loss can hear your voice directly through his or her hearing aids.

Also keep in mind that people typically need about 25 per cent more light as they age, Mr. McCannell adds; so, lighting with full-spectrum bulbs can be helpful. Furthermore, Mr. Egger points out that something as simple as having a door that closes can be very beneficial to shut out extraneous noise.

Ultimately, accessibility should be invisible rather than drawing attention to itself. That’s especially important when working with older people who, in Mr. McCannell’s experience, tend not to want to be perceived as “disabled.”

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“When you can walk into a building and it just works for everybody, that’s what it should be all about,” Mr. Egger says.

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