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Uncomfortable Conversations – Part I

I don’t like to make people uncomfortable.

I became an advisor because I wanted to take care of people – to help them feel safe and financially secure.  Asking questions and raising issues about difficult topics is hard for me, but I do it because it’s one of the most important jobs we do as advisors.

One topic none of us is comfortable discussing is the process of growing old and dying.  Intellectually, we know we’ll age and eventually die of something.  But our society is built around denying that reality as long as we possibly can, and it causes us to put ourselves and our loved ones in some very difficult situations.

As Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964 age, there will be more and more of us facing this reality.  Our parents need our help now, and we need to face the fact that we won’t be forever young either.

Last week I attended a workshop given by Amy Florian, who teaches a graduate level course at Loyola University Chicago on aging, to learn what we at TAAG can do to help.  This is Part 1 of a two part blog on the topic, with the first focused on cognitive issues and the second on communication.

As people age, they lose their mental clarity, but at different levels.  My great-grandmother was still playing chess and reading at 95, so I hope I have her genes!

For some, a loss of clarity is a symptom of a significant and life threatening disease.  One in 9 people over age 65 have Alzheimer’s disease today, and another individual is diagnosed every 67 seconds.  The disease causes the brain to shrink, which not only impacts our cognitive functions, but also slowly shuts down our body’s ability to function altogether.

Even those who have not been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s are sometimes impacted by dementia.  A vitamin B12 deficiency, infections such as UTIs, medication interactions, circulatory problems, and psychological trauma, such as the death of a spouse, can all trigger dementia.

The first sign of dementia or Alzheimer’s isn’t simply becoming forgetful, because older individuals without any serious problems will still exhibit forgetfulness as they age.  The real signs can sometimes be more subtle, such as changes in personality and withdrawing from family and friends.

It’s not easy facing reality (back to those difficult conversations again) but If you are concerned that a family member might be suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s, it’s important to get them to a doctor for a diagnosis as soon as possible for several reasons.

If the dementia is triggered by something such as medical interactions or a vitamin B12 deficiency, the symptoms can be reversed by something as simple as a review and adjustment of medications or a vitamin B12 shot.

Circulatory problems and infections can be treated as well, and early detection can prevent more serious medical events such as a heart attack or sepsis.

Even an early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s allows you to explore treatments that will allow you to maintain your independence much longer than you would if you wait and ignore the signs.  The Alzheimer’s Association has a tool on their website called the Navigator that helps you map out a plan of action if someone you know is diagnosed.  The National Institute on Aging also has a resource book that is available in PDF or booklet form.

Here at TAAG, we complete the Emergency Assistance form with our clients, regardless of their age, to discuss what they want us to do if they begin to show changes in behavior that cause us concern.  We want to be sure they know we’ll be their safety net, and will reach out to friends, family or other advisors of their choosing if they aren’t able and they want us to do so on their behalf.

The physical and mental challenges we face as we age are better faced with friends, family and trusted advisors on our side.  In my next blog, I’ll provide tools and explanations of documents that are available to express your wishes, to ensure that you and your loved ones have more control over what happens to you as you age.