Dympna Fay-Hart didn’t notice her father’s dementia until he started getting confused during their car rides.
“We’d be driving through the same neighborhood he had driven through for some 50 years, and he’d ask, ‘Where are we?’” says Fay-Hart, broker-associate at Dream Town Realty in Chicago.
At the time, several of her clients also had cognitive challenges, whether simply related to age or a true sign of the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Often, their children and families didn’t know what was going on yet. “Many times, family members don’t want to acknowledge that things had slipped through the cracks,” she says.
As a real estate professional, she used her father’s diagnosis to learn how to better assist her clients. Today, Fay-Hart’s business consists mostly of helping the most vulnerable people—and teaching other brokers and agents across the country how to do the same.
Real estate professionals may encounter seniors who are all alone in the world, hoarders who want to hide from the world, and people who are slowly losing their memories. It’s imperative that they understand the situation their clients and their families are in to know how to handle the situation and what conversations need to be had.
It’s not easy work, and commissions may take a long time to achieve, if ever, Fay-Hart says. It takes heart, soul, commitment, tolerance, and a toolbox of other skills. “A lot of people are not cut out for this,” she explains. But for those who take on this niche, it’s a fulfilling business and a desperately needed service for the clientele.
Denial, Drama, and Death
Many times, senior citizens’ homes end up in disrepair, and it doesn’t always correlate with their financial well-being. They might be fearful of letting someone into their home. Moreover, if they do call a family member and say they have a roof or basement leak, they might be fearful that one of their children will tell them it’s time to move because they can’t take care of their house anymore, Fay-Hart adds.
“No one wants to move. When it has been their home for a long time, it’s scary,” she says.
Every real estate professional has experienced difficult clients—those who are picky, who need constant hand holding, or who are just hard to get along with. But what about the young mother of five children who just lost her husband? Or the hoarding grandfather who won’t part with anything? Or the 65-year-old millionaire whose Alzheimer’s is taking over his mind?
“You can give to charity and write a check. But it’s not the same as one-on-one gratification of helping these clients,” says Ann Meyerson, transition counselor and agent at The Keyes Co. in Boca Raton, Fla.
For decades, she served on a successful, high-end Connecticut real estate team, with a clientele coming largely from Wall Street. “As I got older, I hated fighting with ‘Wall Street,’” as she calls those clients, “and it was time to give back,” she says.
Now, most of her real estate business in Florida entails helping the vulnerable. Many of her clients come from adult protective services, which means they are considered a threat to either themselves or someone else. Social workers in Broward and Palm Beach counties—who call her Dr. Ann—often ask for her assistance to help the most difficult clients who need to leave their homes.
Meyerson has witnessed the best and worst of clients and their families, along with the kindness of others she works with and their willingness to help. In her work, she has saved at least three lives.
In one case, “I woke up one morning, and it was 95 degrees. I said, ‘OMG, is Barbara in the garage?’ I called the social worker, who met me at Barbara’s house,” she says.
Meyerson knew that Barbara, an elderly woman with dementia, would sit all day in her garage talking to the television. When Meyerson arrived at her house, she saw that Barbara was dehydrated from the heat. Barbara needed to go to the hospital for care, but she refused. Meyerson called the police, but the police told her they couldn’t do anything. However, Meyerson convinced one of the EMTs to talk with Barbara. Eventually, they convinced her to go with them to receive fluids. Meyerson was eventually able to find Barbara placement in a memory care residence, where she resides today.
“None of Barbara’s four children knew she was in that bad shape,” Meyerson says. “If you’re an agent who’s going to do this kind of work, you must be educated on what you are dealing with and how to recognize all the signs.”
By asking questions, Meyerson learned that the garage held many memories for Barbara. When living in Queens, N.Y., she would sit in a garage talking with family and neighbors.
For Fay-Hart, one of her clients became quite special to her. The woman suffered from dementia. Every other day for two weeks, Fay-Hart went to her house to help her downsize. At the beginning of each of those visits, the woman got out the same photos of her grandchildren and told her the same stories—because she didn’t remember any of their previous visits.
“Every day I was there, it was like being in the ‘50 First Dates’ movie,” Fay-Hart says. “I don’t know if my younger self would have been able to handle it. But a little age, finesse, and experience helped. I’ve also been pretty fortunate with the temperaments of my clients,” she adds.
6 Tips for Working With Vulnerable Adults
Fay-Hart and Meyerson offer advice for other real estate professionals looking to make an impact by working with clients who have cognitive impairments.
- Get in contact with family. “You can’t do this alone,” says Fay-Hart. “Conversations are forgotten, and the seniors aren’t writing things down.” You need to be their other set of ears and understand what the game plan is with everyone involved.
- Grow a dream team. Find people you trust who you can team up with to help your clients, Fay-Hart suggests. That includes other agents, furniture movers, house cleaners, painters, and organizers who can help hoarders or someone who is moving to an assisted living facility.
- Build relationships with elder law attorneys and local 55-plus communities. Not only will you begin to understand the issues and solutions involved when working with these clients, but you will also become a referral resource for your clientele, says Fay-Hart.
- Educate yourself. Every broker and agent working with seniors needs to understand such things as reverse mortgages, veterans’ benefits, Medicaid, and more, Meyerson says. Reach out to your area’s Alzheimer’s Association and senior citizen organizations for information on local resources. Meyerson suggests that real estate pros venturing into this niche earn the Seniors Real Estate Specialist (SRES) designation to give you much more insight into this population.
- Be prepared for a lengthy turnaround. From start to finish, a sale may take from six months to two years, Fay-Hart says. “Everyone wants to accommodate their parents who don’t want to leave their home,” she says. But sometimes, those clients are leaving the stove on or falling down on icy steps. In those situations, a decision must be made quickly to find a place for them to live safely, she adds.
- Know that you’ll experience loss. Beware that a client may die in the middle of the process, especially those who are ill, Meyerson says. “It’s heartbreaking.”