Parkinson’s Disease Impacts the Entire Family

Five ways to support families coping with a Parkinson's diagnosis, from an advisor who has walked in their shoes.

By Marguerita Cheng
Marguerita Cheng
Marguerita Cheng

As CFP professionals, our job isn’t limited to offering our clients financial advice. Nor is it limited to providing them with financial solutions and products. We’re also pillars of support during the highs and lows, for richer or poorer — and yes, in sickness and in health.

And while we might not have taken vows of marriage with them, we often feel a moral commitment to provide the best support we can.

One of the most challenging situations for anyone to deal with is bad news regarding a close family member’s health. Health risks are ever-present for all of us, and a significant part of our financial planning role is to make sure clients and their families are financially protected when illness strikes.

While the financial cover is essential, it isn’t the only support we could provide for our clients during this difficult time. This is especially true when they or their family members face a degenerative illness.

One Million Americans Have Parkinson’s

A good example is Parkinson’s disease, an age-related degenerative brain condition. In layman’s terms, it causes parts of the brain to deteriorate over time. This results in slowed movements, tremors, balance problems and other degenerative symptoms. Most cases happen for unknown reasons, but some are inherited. While there is no single cure, sufferers have many treatments and options.

Approximately one million Americans have Parkinson’s and, according to the Parkinson’s Foundation, that’s more than the combined numbers of people diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is more common in men, and it is second only to Alzheimer’s disease in the neurological disease prevalence stakes.

As with all severe degenerative conditions, particularly those affecting the brain, the family of a Parkinson’s patient can suffer immensely. It’s a common neurological disease in older men, so you may have already experienced a situation in which a client or a client’s father was diagnosed. If not, there’s a good chance that you come across this. Let’s assume your client’s father, like mine, is diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

The Best Advice for You and Your Clients

When your client first hears about the diagnosis, their initial reaction will likely be shock. During the few minutes of consulting with their doctor, their lives and the lives of their parents are about to change forever.

The first thing you need to remember is to listen and be a source of comfort. That’s all anybody initially needs in a situation like this. You might say, “I’m so sorry to hear that,” “I’m here for you” or “Let me know whatever you need.” While these gestures are vital and appreciated, what you need to do after that is to help older clients reach solutions to make their father’s diagnosis easier for everyone.

Once you’ve acknowledged the situation, here are five ways to help support your client.

1. Ease Financial Stress

Have a discussion with your client about the financial burdens associated with Parkinson’s. Review any policies, including life insurance policies, that they or their parents may have, and confirm their health insurance coverage and healthcare providers.

You also need to determine the ability of your client’s parents to handle this burden alone and advise them if they can assist their parents. The cost of living arrangements, hospital bills, caretakers, therapy sessions and other expenses can be a financial burden.

When my dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, my youngest daughter, Karolina, was attending school full-time. I approached her nanny and asked if she still wanted to work with our family. I then redirected the cashflow that I was spending on childcare to supplement in-home care for my dad. Karolina’s nanny helped my mom with meal preparation, light housekeeping and keeping my dad company, etc.

Of course, everyone’s situation is different. Still, the truth is that Parkinson’s will affect your loved one’s ability to earn and manage money due to cognitive decline.

My dad took the lead in personal finance decisions, but after the birth of my son Christian, I encouraged my parents to plan. I stressed the importance of proactively addressing the topic of long-term care. At first, my mom responded, “Gosh, isn’t that for old people?”

I told my parents that planning early would provide them more options, more independence and more control. In this case they could be in control of creating their desired plan for addressing a long-term care event.

2. Ensure the Best Care

Another critical piece of advice for clients is to consult with the best possible medical experts and therapists they can afford.

While there is no known cure for Parkinson’s disease, there are many programs, medicines and treatments that can minimize symptoms, improve mobility and help reduce the severity of the decline.

Your client needs to do their homework here, and time is of the essence. The earlier some highly effective intervention therapies are applied, the better the chances of a milder and more manageable condition.

3. Stay Positive and Calm

This might sound like a cliché but being positive and staying calm can help the patient and the entire family a great deal. Your client’s dad is devastated, and the family is in shock. Ensure that your client understands the importance of remaining calm and strong for the entire family.

Besides the medical experts in therapy and medicine, it might also be a good idea to seek the assistance of a mental health expert. They can offer counseling sessions for your client’s father, including one-on-one sessions and group sessions that help the family grow stronger and more supportive.

Caregivers can feel overwhelmed: I experienced physical, mental and emotional fatigue. I found peace and comfort knowing that my dad was surrounded by his loved ones and able to receive care on his terms.

4. Keep Physically, Mentally and Emotionally Active

Your client must also understand that the shock and stress of the diagnosis might cause their father to isolate themselves, become depressed and stay in the house all day.

While this is a normal reaction, it isn’t a healthy one. Unfortunately, the more inactive and isolated the sufferers become, the quicker the symptoms can worsen.

Your client should actively encourage their father to remain physically active and socially, mentally and emotionally active. Go out with them, engage with them, help them carry on with their fitness routine and keep them motivated!

5. Be Honest and Plan for The Worst

Yes, your client must stay positive, and yes, their father and the rest of the family must remain positive. But positive doesn’t mean delusional. The reality is that their father will struggle, and there will be emotional, financial and many other costs associated with this terrible news.

As such, plans need to be made for all eventualities. There are costs associated with treatment, therapy and support. There is an emotional cost that the entire family will be burdened by, too. The sacrifice of time and money may need to be made by the whole family.

Additional Reading: Sweetheart Scams: My Mom Was a Victim 

Being honest about the situation can sometimes be the best therapy. Advise your client to keep open and honest communication channels with their father and the rest of the family.

There will be tears, there will be sadness and there will be struggle. But most of all, there will be the ever-present strength of the human spirit and the love of family.

In closing, be there for your client and their family. Offer as much support in your capacity as a CFP professional and as a friend, confidante, and human being. After all, we’re not only in this for the money. We’re in it for humanity, too. I know it was not easy for my children to experience their grandpa’s valiant fight with Parkinson’s disease, but they learned empathy and patience. I am so proud of their maturity beyond their years.

Marguerita (Rita) Cheng, CFP, is the chief executive officer of Blue Ocean Global Wealth. She is passionate about helping clients navigate some of life’s most difficult issues — divorce, death, career changes, caring for aging relatives — so they can feel confident and in control of their finances. Rita is a regular columnist for Kiplinger and MarketWatch, and a past spokesperson for the AARP Financial Freedom Campaign. Rita volunteers her time as a SoleMate, or charity runner for Girls on the Run, raising money to win scholarships for girls.



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