Working with aging clients with diminishing faculties can be like walking through a minefield, but it is one that can be maneuvered through safely by advisors who employ the right strategies, says Lee Anne Davies, founder and president of Victoria-based Agenomics.

As clients age and their health declines, it’s important to remember that you specialize in finances — not health. “Don’t judge where [clients are] in their life,” said Davies. “[Advisors are] not physicians, they don’t have the ability to understand what’s really going on.”

According to Statistics Canada, there were approximately five million Canadians aged 65 years or older in 2011. That number is expected to double to 10.4 million by 2036, and by 2051, one in four Canadians will be 65 or older.

As Canadians live longer, many will encounter physical and mental health issues. Currently there are 747,000 Canadians living with cognitive impairment, including dementia, according to the Alzheimer Society of Canada, and that number is expected to reach 1.4 million by 2031.

Even if a client seems absent minded or confused, don’t assume that they have dementia or Alzheimer’s, says Davies. Instead, they could be on new medications or have gone through a serious illness. Furthermore, even if a client has recently been diagnosed with dementia, she said, the symptoms and changes in behaviour of the disease are not black and white.

As such, adjusting your customer service to each client can go a long way to addressing an elderly client’s cognitive abilities, and can make it easier for you to work with them as an advisor.

“This isn’t going to be about nickel-and-diming clients for services,” she says, “this is about providing customer service in the most respectful, inclusive and professional way and this is really going to make certain advisors stand out from others.”

One way to customize your service, says Davies, is to take note of when a client is at his or her best. For example, clients may be a little more alert in the morning than in the afternoon. In such cases, try and schedule meetings with the client earlier in the day.

Another way is to take the memory work out of the equation. Theresa Tosh, vice president and investment advisor with TD Wealth Private Investment Advice in Toronto, provides her older clients with photocopies of her meeting notes, to remind them what was discussed.

When these minor adjustments no longer seem to be enough and you feel a client’s condition is worsening, it may be time to ask a few questions.

Many advisors make the mistake of never questioning a client’s decision, even if they suspect their cognitive abilities are on the decline, says Barry LaValley, founder, Retirement Lifestyle Centre, in Nanaimo, B.C. This can have serious consequences for you and the client. For example, a client might call in a panic one day, requesting to sell all his or her securities, and then the next day the same client could call back asking why he or she is in 100% cash.

“Advisors have to push back on decisions that clients are making that go against what the client and the advisor had decided what the goal was,” LaValley says.

Avoid pushing too much, however, when a client tells you that he or she has been diagnosed. It’s important to give the client space in that situation, since the news may still be fresh and the client may need time to adjust to his or her new reality.

In such a situation, Davies suggests asking clients whether they would like to discuss what their diagnosis means for them financially right away, or whether they would prefer to wait until the next scheduled meeting. Make sure you emphasize to clients that they can call at any time if they have any questions or concerns.

In some cases, to help make things easier for clients, it may be best to bring in their children. “It’s the individual advisor, in my opinion, that has to say, isn’t it time we talked with your daughter?” says Tosh. “Maybe your daughter should be involved, maybe your son should be involved.”

However, some clients may not want their children involved, as they prefer to keep their finances private, Davies says.

If a client doesn’t want his or her children involved, and has no spouse or significant other, than it’s time to take a step back. “You can’t deal with a client if you are very sure that they are not completely able to make rational decisions,” says LaValley. When you reach such a point, talk with your branch manager and compliance officer about what next steps you and the client should take.

This is the first article in a three-part series on working with aging clients.

On Wednesday: Keeping plans on track in retirement.