Planning Reflection | September 10, 2021
When my mother was diagnosed with cancer in late 2015, we were fortunate enough to have time to talk about what she wanted. Even though she already had her estate plan in place, we had opportunities to talk about the other topics that many of us dread: what treatment she wanted and how she wanted to die if the cancer became too advanced. Those conversations will forever be etched in my memory. They were not easy, but they were necessary. Once we got started talking and after shedding many tears, it became easier and easier. We even had a chance to make amends about lots of family issues. It also forced me to think about my own mortality and how I want to leave this world.
Those conversations proved invaluable as the disease progressed. When my mother lost the fight on April 19, 2016, my family and I had clear directions on what to do, which allowed us the space we needed to grieve.
As a financial professional, this experience made me appreciate the value of having these conversations.
The Value of Conversation
Addressing our own mortality, and the gradual lack of capacity that often precedes it, is not usually on our list of favorite things to do. How do you initiate a conversation about end of life issues? One answer: in much the same way we approach any task that we dread. You grit your teeth and bring in some combination of compassion and humor. Include your loved ones in the process. Have them over for dinner and let them know the theme of the night is end of life planning. If you want structure, give a “Death Over Dinner” party a try.
Maybe you are like Mr. Incredible and think, I still have time. I can put this off until later. While that may be true for many of us, for others, there is greater urgency. Increased longevity has many of our clients living into their 80’s and 90’s and staying fairly active – but also brings decreased mobility, diminishing eyesight, and partial hearing loss. These physical distractions can make daily problem solving and decision making unappealing at best.
Beyond the physical, there are also gradual cognitive changes as we age. Younger family members who expect their seniors to still be as sharp as they always were can be confused when they witness incremental changes or occasional slips. This may not indicate the dementia effects of Parkinson’s or Alzheimers, but shouldn’t be dismissed either. A steady decline in financial literacy has been documented in adults over the age of 60, as well as a diminishing ability to draw inferences, multi-task, and focus for sustained periods of time. 
Starting conversations early, when you are healthy and have the luxury of time, paves the way for specific problem solving when issues do arise. If something were to develop swiftly, or your family needs to make decisions without you, both you and they will be prepared.
The Joys of Preparation
The legal documents that make up your estate plan (trust, will, power of attorney for finances and healthcare, healthcare directive) are a core element of readiness for other conversations. Knowing what you want and what you are worried about makes it easier when sitting down with an attorney to execute these documents.
Considering where you want to reside if you become incapacitated can generate a lot of productive energy, both in you and in your family or friends. Most people want to age in place, ideally staying in their homes until they die. That can require readying your space for the future, whether that means adding handrails, reworking a bedroom and bathroom to accommodate a caregiver, re-organizing the kitchen cabinets, or just adding height to your favorite chair.
Others will thrive in a retirement care community where food is prepared, activities are easily available, and they can continue to be social. Continuity and familiarity are benefits of staying in your home, but many elders don’t have a lot of family nearby, and once they aren’t physically mobile they become isolated and at greater risk of illness. 
Give yourself the joy of partnership on decision making, whether with adult children, a trusted friend, or a professional advisor. Those partnerships start with a conversation and can lead to specific sorts of help that make aging much easier. You’ll also feel good to know you have a team on your side when the scammers start to call – or if they already have and you need help. Admitting that we fell for a scam is not easy because we have to admit something is wrong or something is off about us, but having a team in place to keep you safe feels great.
Like the challenges of youth and the challenges of middle age, the challenges of aging are best faced with the support of family and friends, and ideally, some humor laced with a dash of grace.
It Begins With a Conversation
At North Berkeley, we are ready to help you with these planning conversations, whether they apply to you, your elderly parents, or a dear friend. We invite you to bring us into the conversation so that we can help with what most consider a topic they never want to deal with.
One specific way we are currently addressing these concerns is to document an alternate contact person should we be concerned about a client’s capacity. Maybe they are asking for unusually large distributions without a clear explanation of why they need it, or attempted to pay the same tax bill twice. Particularly for older clients or clients with a known medical issue, we want to flag anything out of the ordinary, and be in touch. The alternate contact has no authority to give us directions; instead that person may be able to help initiate the conversation that’s needed.
There are many joys of aging – time to relax and pursue hobbies, enjoy grandchildren, share stories, or donate time or money to organizations doing work you value – and there are challenges too. Taking those challenges in stride and in conversation with family and friends can create peace of mind that also brings a sense of joy.
 “Financial literacy declines with age, confidence to make decisions doesn’t,” Texas Tech University in Science News, March 11, 2016. From the article: “In “Old Age and the Decline of Financial Literacy,” published in the journal Management Science, the researchers found average financial literacy scores fell by half between the ages of 65 and 85. The rate of decline was the same after controlling for characteristics like education, gender and wealth.”
 “Loneliness and Social Isolation Linked to Serious Health Conditions,” CDC Alzheimer’s Disease and Healthy Aging.
About Krystal Fortner, CFP®
Krystal serves as a lead advisor and provides clients with comprehensive financial planning and tax-efficient investment management. Using a holistic approach, she guides her clients in identifying important goals important to them and designs customized plans based on their needs.
This commentary on this website reflects the personal opinions, viewpoints, and analyses of the North Berkeley Wealth Management (“North Berkeley”) employees providing such comments, and should not be regarded as a description of advisory services provided by North Berkeley or performance returns of any North Berkeley client. The views reflected in the commentary are subject to change at any time without notice. Nothing on this website constitutes investment advice, performance data, or any recommendation that any particular security, portfolio of securities, transaction, or investment strategy is suitable for any specific person. Any mention of a particular security and related performance data is not a recommendation to buy or sell that security. North Berkeley manages its clients’ accounts using a variety of investment techniques and strategies, which are not necessarily discussed in the commentary. Investments in securities involve the risk of loss. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.