From Investments to Individuals: Finance Firm Prepares for Aging

A common view of investment advisers is that they place you into funds with the highest advisor fees. Then move your money around – churn, churn, churn – to reap even more cash for themselves. Your cash.

“Show me the money.”

This view is especially vexing for older adults heading towards retirement. They’ve spent a lifetime building wealth and want an advisor who understands more than simply their desire to protect assets and distribute to heirs.

Instead, they want someone who understands them. Talks their language. Knows the complex interplay of aging, health, family, retirement, caregiving and cognitive decline.

As a long-time financial advisor and retirement specialist for Merrill Lynch, Cyndi Hutchins often found herself baffled by the very questions asked by her older adult clients – even after two decades as a financial advisor.

So Hutchins went back to school, getting her master’s degree in gerontology from the famed USC Davis School of Gerontology. And before the ink was dry on her diploma in the fall of 2013 she had a new title at Bank of America Merrill Lynch – which had merged in 2009.

Director of financial gerontology.

At last month’s White House Conference on Aging,  Andy Sieg, head of global wealth and retirement at the firm, said he was shocked to discover his own company had a gerontologist-in-training. And Hutchins’ degree came at a fortuitous time, dovetailing with Merrill Lynch Clear and its “seven life priorities” – launched after the 2008 economic meltdown – which focuses on seven areas critical to modern life.

Health, home, family, giving, leisure, work and finances.

Instead of the tunnel vision of target date funds and large cap investments, Merrill Lynch is expanding the advisor’s role to embrace a holistic view of living and aging.

“Changing it from a conversation about your money to one about your life,” says Hutchins. “Deeper and more meaningful conversations.”

And while health is first on the list, money underpins the other six.

“The finance part is the catalyst that makes everything else possible,” she adds.

In April, Bank of America Merrill Lynch launched its pioneering Longevity Training Program for all 14,000 of its financial advisors. Developed in conjunction with Hutchins’ USC Davis alma mater, the nine-hour training consists of videos, PowerPoints and other reference materials.

The move is calculated not only to connect more deeply with older adults, but to take advantage of the new Longevity Economy – Baby Boomers 50 and older who are living longer and could be considered the world’s third leading economy.

The traditional rules of investing have changed dramatically since the retirement age was established at 65 under the assumption that most Americans wouldn’t live much longer than that.

In the past, the aging trajectory was “rocking chair, they take a cruise, and then they die,” says Hutchins.

Today, retirements can span 40 years to include not only that cruise but an encore career, more education, and trips to Europe, South America, and Asia. And don’t forget about Alzheimer’s disease. And long-term care expenses. And school for the grandkids. And an inheritance for the kids.

“There’s no longer this notion of a traditional retirement,” says Hutchins

She emphasizes that the types of investments that financial advisors will recommend after the training will vary only slightly – what’s new is the ability to empathize with older clients. To speak their language.

One of her USC instructors was George Shannon. A Hollywood actor and voiceover artist for 30 years, Shannon realized that ageism would eventually curtail his career, so he returned to school and received three gerontology degrees from USC, including a Ph.D., all between the ages of 55 and 64. He is now an associate professor.

Shannon hosts several hours of the advisor videos.

“Fundamentally, what we’re trying to accomplish are levels of understanding and sensitivity,” he says

Imagine a client’s response, he suggests, when told by a financial advisor that their lifetime savings of $400,000 will pay for just four years in a nursing home. And what about the caregiver wife who is tapped out both financially and emotionally from taking care of her husband full time?

Shannon says Baby Boomers, in particular, are used to a more extravagant lifestyle and will struggle to stretch savings over a retirement period spanning two, three or four decades.

Once there were three legs to the retirement stool – social security, investments and savings. But Shannon says “work” is now the fourth leg of that stool, and most Americans – some estimate 80% — will continue to toil long past traditional retirement age. Some seniors will continue working into their 80’s.

A sister program to the Merrill Lynch Longevity Training Program focuses on the 35,000 companies Merrill partners with – its plan sponsors – that represent five million employees. Merrill is assisting both human resources and benefits departments to understand long-term investing and make them more age-friendly.

If there’s one thing Hutchins has learned about older adults since taking on her new role, it’s about the importance of listening.

“There are an awful lot of people out there who really just want to be heard and understood when they’re dealing with their financial advisors,” she says.

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