Dementia friendly banking - a promise kept

If you or somebody you know has dementia and dealing with finances is proving difficult, help is available.

Westpac’s Lorraine Hunter at podium

A promise made to her dying father led Westpac banker Lorraine Hunter to spearhead a project to introduce dementia friendly banking in New Zealand.

She was keen to transform the experience and remove barriers.

Her father Gerry, who lived in Scotland, was diagnosed with the illness at 64.

“As a banker, I knew it was really important we put in place his will, an Enduring Power of Attorney (EPA) and got his financial affairs in order quickly because we didn’t know just how quickly his condition would deteriorate.”

It was a tough situation for Auckland-based Ms Hunter (right).

“I had to deal with the banks in the UK, often by telephone, and it was really difficult.

“Even though I had the EPA, they would often say to you, ‘Look, could you just pop into the local branch and we could fix whatever the issue is for you’ but, of course, that’s not possible when you are 12,000 miles away.

“When my dad was really ill, he made me promise I would do something to help people like him affected by the illness.”

Struggling with finances

Ms Hunter, who’s an Executive Private Advisor with Westpac, says she didn’t know at that stage how she could help but she approached Alzheimers Auckland and found other families were going through similar issues.

“Most people who are diagnosed with this illness have great difficulty in dealing with their finances and with financial institutions, and [they] asked whether there was any way that Westpac could do something to make it easier.”

Dementia client at Westpac counter with teller

In her research, she found Alzheimers Scotland and the Bank of Scotland had collaborated to come up with a dementia friendly concept and were willing to send over information.

Lorraine approached Westpac’s CEO David McLean and he queried why the bank should focus on this particular issue, and there was a ready answer.

“Ultimately it comes down to doing the right thing by our customers, and it is the right thing to do,” she said.

“We would have loads of customers and staff members in a similar situation to me.

"Two out of every three people in New Zealand are already affected by this illness.

“We’re bound to have lots of customers who are either diagnosed now or have been living with the illness for quite a while.

"Their families have probably struggled to cope and there’s lots of ways that we can help to make things easier for them.”

Training for awareness

A training programme for all Westpac staff was then devised.

“It’s training that really allows staff to have a much greater awareness of what the illness is, and how it presents.

“For example, if someone with dementia walked into a branch, and it had reflective glass, they might not actually be looking at the person on the other side. They might only be looking at their own reflection.

“Also, if someone was to come in and they are trying to explain a situation to a staff member, quite often they might not be able to pick the right words to explain the point they make, or they might get distracted or frustrated.”

Dementia client sits at table with teller

Lorraine Hunter says staff are trained to take the customer into a quiet area and sit down and talk to them.

The bank also advises those with dementia, and their family members, about how important it is to put in place a will and an Enduring Power of Attorney so that someone they trust can look after their finances going forward.

With their clients’ agreement, bank accounts are then structured so the bulk of money is protected and there’s a small amount of funds in a daily account.  

“A small amount of money is kept there so they can still carry on their day to day life as independently as possible but protecting them if that card falls into someone else’s hands that shouldn’t have it,” says Ms Hunter.

If a customer alerts Westpac to their dementia, the bank will load their names and contact details of family members onto an internal system.

“They only have to give us that information once and every time you come in after that or have a need to call the contact centre, all Westpac staff can see that Mr Jones has dementia and if he gets a little bit confused, please ring his daughter.”

“It keeps the family in touch with what’s happening, particularly when someone’s really starting to decline and they’re forgetting what they’re doing.”

Safeguarding your finances

Since its introduction last year, 500 people have opted to use this safeguard.

“Families are confident now that if their father comes into the bank and they do something out of the ordinary, that we will pick the phone up and say ‘Look dad was in today and you might just want to double check because he was adamant he wanted to take some more money out’, and that’s with the consent of the customer and their family.

“It hopefully makes things a lot more pro-active to stop financial abuse.”

Westpac sees the training and notification system as a community project, and is posting all its dementia friendly material on its website for other organisations, whether small businesses or corporates, to be able to use.

"It was one of the things we’re really passionate about – this is not a Westpac thing, this is a community-wide thing," says Ms Hunter.

"We’re more than happy to share what we’ve done and the information that we’ve got available."