Helping customers as they age

Training and awareness can be key

How many of us have witnessed a scenario like this: an elderly customer enters a bank or other business and seems just a bit confused or hesitant about why he or she is there and how to complete their intended transaction. Often, things work out, either on their own or with some gentle prompting by a perceptive employee. But that’s not always the case. As the U.S. population ages, elderly Americans are at an increasing risk of dementia and vulnerable to financial losses, abuse, or fraud.

According to a report by the Alzheimer’s Association, an estimated 5.3 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, the most prevalent type of dementia, including 11% of those age 65 or older. An estimated 14% of Americans age 71 or older have some form of dementia, although many of them are unaware because it is under diagnosed, according to the report. In Wisconsin, an estimated 110,000 people age 65 or older have Alzheimer’s, with projections of 130,000 over the next 10 years.

Studies also show that those who experience cognitive decline as they age often make poor and/or risky financial decisions. What’s worse, those who make such decisions continue to feel confident in their ability to manage their finances well.

Some of the signs that a person might have Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia include:

  • Memory loss that disrupts daily life.
  • Challenges in planning or solving problems.
  • Difficulty completing familiar tasks such as handling money.
  • Confusion with time or place.
  • Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships.
  • New problems with words in speaking or writing.

Although families are often aware of a loved one’s difficulties, they are not always in a position to step in to prevent financial losses, especially in day-to-day circumstances. In recent years, many banks and other businesses, as well as entire communities, have embraced training designated as Dementia Friendly to teach employees best practices in dealing with customers who have Alzheimer’s and other dementia.

Many of the financial problems that can occur when a person has dementia result from confusion or misplaced trust. For example, mail can pile up and become overwhelming, resulting in unpaid bills. Or the person might make contributions to charities or other organizations, thinking the solicitations they receive are actually invoices. Others are scammed by unscrupulous caregivers or others who provide services or repairs. Employees at banks and other businesses can be trained to recognize signs of potential fraud or financial abuse and step in to help the person, or contact a family member or trusted advisor.

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In Wisconsin, the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Alliance provides standards to be designated as a dementia-friendly business or organization:

  • Complete Dementia Friendly Community (DFC) training for management and 50% of front-line employees.
  • Designate a team leader to be liaison between their organization and the DFC task force.
  • Be open to discussions regarding environment changes (e.g., lighting, signage, layout, etc.).
  • Be willing to share DFC training materials with any new hires and all employees who did not attend training.
  • Undergo an on-site visit/follow-up training on an annual basis to recertify its dementia-friendly status.

When a business or organization has been designated dementia friendly, they will receive signage to display.

Other recommendations to work with customers who show signs of dementia, include:

  • Offer understanding and reassurance — A person with dementia might find it difficult to process information and feel confused or disoriented. Allow the person to take time to describe what he or she needs and try to put the person at ease. If needed, ask if there is someone you can call or anything you can do.
  • Communicate clearly — Make eye contact and speak calmly and clearly using short, simple sentences. Do not stand too close or stand over the person when talking, and do not speak sharply or raise your voice.
  • Listen carefully — Provide encouragement and ask questions if you do not fully understand. Take notes if necessary to verify what the person needs or is requesting.
  • Be patient — Do not rush a person who has dementia or speak to others about them as if they were not present. Offer a quiet place to talk if they appear distracted.

More information about the Dementia Friendly Community program in Wisconsin is available from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

Jean Sinkule is banking center manager at the Monroe office for Wisconsin Bank & Trust, Member FDIC.

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