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This is how Alzheimer’s can take over your business and your life

August 29, 2019

By Martha Sullivan, CPA, CVA/ABV, CM&AA, CEPA
Partner, Succession Planning Practice Leader

Martha leads HK’s succession and exit planning services division and is a regular contributor to Wisconsin’s InBusiness digital magazine.

Did you know that half of all business transitions are forced due to either death, disability, divorce, disagreement, or distress? With death and disability as two of the five “Ds,” health is a significant factor influencing continued ownership of a business.

One illness is growing in its potency to threaten continued business ownership — Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Consider the following from the Alzheimer’s Association:

  • Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States;
  • There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, nor a way to stop or slow its progression;
  • Between 2000 and 2017, deaths from heart disease have decreased 9 percent while deaths from Alzheimer’s have increased 145 percent;
  • One in three seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another dementia. It kills more than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined;
  • Only 16 percent of seniors receive regular cognitive assessments during routine health check-ups;
  • In 2019, Alzheimer’s and other dementias will cost the nation $290 billion. By 2050, these costs could rise as high as $1.1 trillion;
  • Every 65 seconds, someone in the United States develops the disease;
  • 5.8 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s. By 2050, this number is projected to rise to nearly 14 million. The statistics for Wisconsin are sobering, as well, as our population skews older;
  • More than 16 million Americans provide unpaid care for people with Alzheimer’s or other dementias. That translates into 2.75 people providing unpaid care for every person living with Alzheimer’s;
  • These caregivers provided an estimated 18.5 billion hours of care valued at nearly $234 billion;
  • Alzheimer’s impacts all humans, regardless of economic status;
  • Women are twice as likely as men to develop the disease;
  • People of color have higher risk levels. African-Americans are twice as likely, and Hispanics are 1.5 times as likely as Caucasians to develop the disease; and
  • Alzheimer’s is sneaky. The proteins and plaques may be present and developing for many, many years — up to a decade or more — before the symptoms of cognitive decline present themselves.

This epidemic is only going to grow with the aging demographic. The devastating effects will impact each of us — in your business and possibly in your own home — if it hasn’t already.

Alzheimer’s could assault the successful operation of your business in many ways, including:

  • You yourself develop the disease;
  • A loved one — your spouse, grandparent, parent, or dear friend — cognitively fails, demanding that you assume the role, in some capacity, of caregiver;
  • Your workforce — employees — develop the disease or need to assume the role of caregiver; or
  • Your clientele suffers cognitive decline.

You or your loved one

If you yourself begin to have cognitive decline, it’ll obviously catch up to you and your business. You may or may not be aware of it, and even if you are aware of it, you may or may not have the courage to seek out medical consultation. (You should! Early and correct diagnosis is key.) If you’re not aware of it, your co-workers may have started to see signs but are reluctant to speak up, feeling helpless as they witness your decline. Decisions and performance will be impacted. The long-term viability of the business is at a turning point and may be questionable.

When it’s your loved one living with the disease, such as your spouse or parent, your life spirals with complexity. You wonder: “Is this normal?”, “Are they safe?”, “Do I say something?”, “How do I deal with this?” You take on responsibilities you never had before, such as taking a bigger role in meals, shopping, housekeeping, yard work, basic daily care, transportation, medical appointments, and so on. Depending on the severity of your loved one’s dementia, your sleep patterns may be disrupted or shortened, and your time together filled with conflict and stress. You now have another full-time job on top of running your company. Your life is turned on its head.

Dollars to doughnuts, these situations will impede the results of the business. If you are unprepared to transition leadership of your business, financial results will decline. When that happens, the value of your company will deteriorate. The need to harvest liquidity from the business may be at an all-time high to pay for care, but your ability to do so may be seriously compromised.

People at work

I can guarantee you have co-workers who are being or have been touched by the disease. This is a disease, like other brain and mental illnesses, that people shy away from discussing. Alzheimer’s is impacting our places of business — we just may not know it yet.

As a business owner or manager, you may be unaware that there’s something going on with your employee outside of work. A decline in performance or work quality, or signs of fatigue and distractedness, are clues. As a caregiver, your co-worker is experiencing the same burdens described above while trying to continue to perform their job. If the parent is geographically distant, family demands may force the employee to take extended time off, or worse, make a choice and sacrifice their employment to honor their family. Retention and productivity suffer.

Aging clientele pose a new dimension in customer service. Depending on the nature of your business, the consequences may be significant. Consider the challenge a wealth manager may face in dealing with an undiagnosed but cognitively impaired individual wanting to make ill-advised investments. What about an elderly man with Alzheimer’s arriving at a car lot, checkbook in hand, to buy a new car? (One Oregon auto dealer paid more than $120,000 in fines after selling seven cars over a one-month period to a 78-year-old man with Alzheimer’s disease and no driver’s license.) How are you going to handle serving cognitively impaired customers in your business in a dignified, safe, and responsive way?

The good news in all the darkness, however, is that you do not need to walk this path alone. In fact, don’t even consider walking it alone. Here are some actions you can take to protect yourself, your business, and your family in the face of this epidemic:

  1. Become informed. If you don’t know much about Alzheimer’s, learn about it. Know the signs of the disease so you can talk to your doctor if you have your own personal concerns. Build employee wellness and support systems internally and customer service programs for the company. Visit www.Alz.org or reach out to our local resources at (608) 203-8500 to learn more about the resources, programs, research, and support offered.
  2. Understand what your family risks may be. There are indications that family history plays a role. Current research also indicates that lifestyle choices may influence the development or progression of the disease and/or its symptoms. Develop a plan that works for you.
  3. Talk about it — in your family and in your workplace. It’s impacting us. The more it comes out into the open, the better opportunity we have to work through the issues and support each other.
  4. Seek out and accept help. Nobody can deal with this disease alone. Resist the temptation to isolate. Reach out to your health-care providers, the Alzheimer’s Association, other resources in our community, and friends and family for support.

If you own a company, understand that you may not have control over when you exit your business. As discussed in many other posts, it’s crucial that your business always be ready — your anticipated “sell-by” date is irrelevant. Guard your business, your family, and yourself against the five Ds and, as you can see, the big A, and you’ll strengthen your company’s transferability each day.

Martha Sullivan has served on the Board of Directors of the South-Central Wisconsin Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association since 2015, and now serves on the Wisconsin statewide board. If you have questions or would like more information, please email her at msullivan@honkamp.com.

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