Editor’s note: To help CPAs meet the needs of older clients, the PFP Section has chosen to focus on elder planning as a thought leadership topic. This is the first in a series of articles about planning for life transitions following retirement featuring prominent CPA personal financial planners that will appear throughout 2016.
CPAs can expect their client base to become grayer in the near future. According to the U.S. Census, in 2050, the population age 65 and over in the United States is projected to reach 83.7 million—almost double what it was in 2012. These older clients will face many physical and cognitive challenges.
However, by making a few small changes to their offices and communication styles, CPAs can help elderly clients feel more comfortable, well-respected, and secure. Leading CPA personal financial planners share their best advice for how CPAs can orient the delivery of their services to satisfy the unique needs of an aging client base.
- Be flexible in your communication style. “How would you prefer to communicate?” should be a standard question CPAs ask older clients, said Gina Chironis, CPA/PFS, president and CEO of Clarity Wealth Management. Often, senior clients prefer written and face-to-face communication and phone calls over social media and email, said Theodore Sarenski, CPA/PFS, the CEO of Blue Ocean Strategic Capital.
- Speak slowly and clearly. Enunciation and volume are important, as, Sarenski noted, many clients won’t wear hearing aids. As Chironis said, “As a woman with a high voice, I work hard to speak in lower tones, to enunciate clearly, and to look straight at the individual when talking so that they can see as well as hear what I am saying.”
Respect silence, advised James Sullivan, CPA/PFS, a financial planner at Sullivan Prime Plus and author of The CPA’s Guide to Financing Retirement Healthcare, and don’t view it as a sign of incomprehension or a signal to go rushing in with more details. It could just be a sign that the client is collecting his or her thoughts.
- Become attuned to your clients’ special needs. Watch them and stop and ask questions. Ask them to repeat what you have said “in your own words” or ask, “Can you explain that back to me?” Be aware that emotional issues can arise in a meeting. “Learn to listen more, become more empathetic. Pay attention to the body language and facial expressions,” Sarenski said.
Learn and understand what your clients are going through. Sullivan recommended learning more about how chronic diseases present. The more you know about these conditions, the better you will be able to empathize with clients, make them comfortable, and perhaps recognize signs of change.
Sullivan makes a special point about dealing with someone with Alzheimer’s: “Talk at eye level so they can see your expressions. Never talk looking down at them.” Doing so will help Alzheimer’s patients focus on you and will ensure that you don’t startle or intimidate them.
- Be careful not to ignore a chronically ill partner in a couple. “Do not ignore him or her, even though he or she may not be able to comprehend what you are saying. Address both and treat both respectfully,” said Sullivan.
- Give clients options about when and where to meet. Be sensitive about what time of day to talk, especially with clients dealing with Alzheimer’s, Sullivan suggested. Ask what is the best time for them and, if possible, be willing to meet them at their homes.
- Avoid information overload. As people get older, they often want more time to think things through, so slow your pace. Restrict the number of topics at a meeting, and give your clients time to digest the information provided. In short, “be crisp,” Sullivan said.
How do you convey complex financial concepts to seniors? By keeping your presentations simple. Flow charts and other forms of pictorial representations can be particularly useful.
However, pie charts are a big no-no, both Sarenski and Chironis said. That is because they have to do with percentages, which can be a challenge for many people, Sarenski said.
Present financial relationships in pithy terms; for example, “Interest rates are up, which means bond prices are low.”
- Accommodate seniors’ physical limitations. Use larger fonts on presentations (at least 14 point, Chironis said) and help clients keep stair-climbing to a minimum—or better still, avoid it altogether. Hold meetings near the waiting area so your clients do not have to walk down a 30-foot hallway. Moreover, bathrooms should be close and accessible. Make sure your office is well-lit, she added.
“Our office is intentionally located in an office park with convenient parking right in front of the building and on the first floor,” Chironis said, pointing out that it can be confusing for seniors to park and then navigate a high-rise office building with elevators.
- Maintain an uncluttered office space. The waiting room furniture should be firm and easy to get in and out of. “It can get embarrassing for seniors to push up and out,” Sarenski said.
- Create a welcoming atmosphere. Chironis calls her firm’s receptionist “director of first impressions,” and said she is trained to make clients as comfortable as possible, “offering them a selection of coffees and teas, and always a biscotti or a bit of chocolate.”
- Host events specifically for seniors. Hold seminars aimed specifically at the 60-plus age group to make your scope of services clear, Sarenski advised.
For more information about elder planning topics, visit the PFP Section at aicpa.org/pfp.