Is Your Bank Ready to Age With You?

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By Kimberly Palmer

Banks can be daunting places for older adults, especially those with cognitive, physical or hearing impairments. The glass barrier that typically separates a customer from a bank teller can make it difficult for older adults to hear clearly, and if they have to stand in a long line and then remain standing to talk to the teller, it can be taxing. Older adults with caregivers often face other hurdles, since many banks don't yet offer specialized financial products aimed at caregiver relationships.

AARP notes that banks should pay attention to the concerns of their older customers, who represent a growing customer base. Americans over age 50 own 67 percent of bank deposits and control 70 percent of the nation's assets, according to AARP. With the population of those age 65 and over set to double within the next 30 years, the deposits owned by older adults are also poised to balloon.

"Banks are now seeing a business reason to be involved," said Judith Kozlowski, chief counsel at FINRA, an industry self-regulatory organization, at the Gerontological Society of America's 2014 meeting in the District of Columbia. As a result, some banks, including Bank of America (BAC) and Wells Fargo (WFC), have launched initiatives to make sure they offer this older demographic the services they need.

Cognitive Decline?

Even adults in their 60s and 70s who are otherwise healthy start to face cognitive declines when it comes to managing their finances, including difficulty in spotting potential fraud or managing their bills, according to research by Daniel Marson, a professor of neurology at the University of Alabama–Birmingham.

"Your banker might notice before anyone else in your life that you're facing cognitive decline," says Debra Whitman, AARP's executive vice president of policy, strategy and international affairs, speaking at the GSA conference. That's why she says it's important for bank tellers to be trained to spot potential fraud targeting older adults as well as help customers who might need extra assistance.

Making financial management easier and more transparent for caregivers is also important, according to Elizabeth Costle, director of the AARP Public Policy Institute's consumer and state affairs team. At the conference, she highlighted research showing that many caregivers find the financial management component of caregiving difficult and stressful. But when properly supported by financial institutions, she says caregivers can better help loved ones make financial decisions and also be on the lookout for scams.

Since many banking customers stick with the same bank throughout adulthood, it's not too early to check if your bank is prepared to age with you, even if you are still decades off from needing extra assistance. Here are five signs your bank is ready to age with you:

1. Extra Fraud Alerts

Some banks, like Wells Fargo, have launched internal units to crack down on fraud aimed at older customers. They have systems in place to alert family members if there are concerns about fraud on an account, and bank tellers are trained to spot suspicious behavior, like large withdrawals. Some banks also offer real-time alerts to family members about unusual transactions and delay money transfers to provide more time to investigate suspicious requests. Some banks even check in with older clients if they go long periods without hearing from them. "Social isolation is part of the problem," says Kozlowski, referring to why seniors are so vulnerable to fraud.

2. Physical Space that Is Friendly to Older Adults

When you walk into your bank, is there a place to sit while talking to bank tellers? Is the area well lit and do the tellers speak loudly, with the option of communicating without the glass partition in place? Do they offer to write account balances in large font if necessary?

"It goes well beyond ADA compliance," Whitman says, referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act. It means fostering an age-friendly culture, she adds. Even simple changes from banks, such as training tellers to write account balances in large numbers, talking louder or more softly as needed and making it possible for people to sit down instead of stand while conducting business at the bank can help older customers, she says.

3. Providing Services Outside the Bank

Sometimes, older customers find it much easier to conduct business outside the bank, from home or another location. Notary services in particular should be offered outside the bank's walls, Whitman says. That way, if older clients need help with something like finalizing wills, they can do so from the comfort of their own home.

4. Caregiving-Specific Products

Banks that make it easy to add a name to an account for monitoring, without transactional authority, can help older adults avoid fraud. Having a second or even third pair of eyes observing all transactions offers a line of defense against scam artists, Costle says. Banks can also make it easier to pay bills from someone else's account, so a caregiver can more easily handle bills and prevent commingling of funds, she adds. Some banks also offer educational programs and information to caregivers who take over financial management for their loved ones.

There are other new products, like the prepaid Visa (V) debit card True Link, that are designed to help seniors and their caregivers avoid fraud. A caregiver can put money on the card and then set spending limits for different categories, add real-time alerts, turn the card on or off and even block specific stores. If an older adult has overspent on a certain charity or retailer in the past, then the caregiver can use a blocking feature so the card won't work for a particular expense.

5. Sensitivity to concerns and needs of older clientele

A general awareness and sensitivity to the issues that come up for older banking customers can go a long way toward providing age-friendly services, said Marie-Therese Connolly , a senior scholar the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former director of the Department of Justice's Elder Justice and Nursing Home Initiative, at the GSA conference. Bank tellers trained to notice red flags, like when a new spouse or caregiver attempts to withdraw large amounts of money from an account, can help prevent fraud and abuse.

"We can't investigate or prosecute our way out of this problem. We have to prevent it," she says, adding that it's not just money that's at stake. Financial exploitation among older adults is associated with an increase in morbidity and likelihood of family members sending their relatives to live in a nursing home. "Elder abuse tips over lives. They become less independent and more dependent on caregivers," she says.
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