Maggie Van Camp, leader of agricultural development for BDO, sees the key foreboding issue for agriculture as farm succession. She asks, “Who is going to farm in future generations…and how the heck are we going to transfer the management and ownership of those farms?”
Consider the following facts that are currently impacting farm succession:
- Never before have the older generation lived this long,
- Never before have our farm businesses been this complicated,
- Never before have our farm assets been this valuable.
But disease and declining cognitive functioning impact farm succession too. “What’s the urgency for farm transition?” you may wonder. What is at risk? While cancer, heart attack, and stroke might motivate folks to take action to get their affairs in order, decreasing brain function is harder to pinpoint. Is it just a function of aging, or is it something more insidious? Today I want to talk about the uncomfortable topic of dementia and how you can let go of denial and face it head-on.
Dealing with Dementia: Stories from My Family
In October 1997, we buried my father-in-law, who suffered from a genetic brain shrinking disease, and in November 2011, we buried my farming father, who had suffered from Alzheimer’s. It’s 2020 now, and I am seeing farmers under 60 dealing with forgetfulness that is impacting their ability to manage a farm, as well as those at 70 who still cannot believe how many details they are forgetting on a daily basis.
We knew that dementia was impacting my dad when he started putting his Corn Flakes box in the fridge, which was noticed by a boarder in his home. Thankfully, we got the home care coordinator involved, quickly called a family meeting, and sought out a geriatric psychiatrist who made the diagnosis and removed dad’s ability to drive.
This did not happen overnight but required direction, action, and accountability to get a workable care plan in place. Thankfully, Dad had an updated will, an enduring power of attorney, and he trusted his children to act well on his behalf. No parts of this story are harmonious, but that is for another time.
Losing the ability to make sound decisions is a huge fear factor for spouses who are seeing decline and don’t have a partner who accepts the fact that their brain function is not what it should be for running a farm. My intent in writing this piece is to alert farm families to wipe out all procrastination of getting your wills, financial plans, business plan, and vision for the farm in place while you have good brain power of all the farm team.
It saddens me every time I survey my audiences and find that 25 percent of them don’t even have a will. Some have wills but no power of attorney for the risks of being incapacitated to make decisions (think truck accident injury). When my hubby crashed in October 2017, we were prepared for our successor son to invoke the POA so the farm bills could be paid, and decisions made. Some folks have wills that are 19 years old, leaving the farm successor in chaos to fight with non-farm siblings who are due to inherit a third of all farm assets!!
Staying stuck in denial has to stop now.
Tips for Dealing with Farmer Dementia
What steps can you take to explore better brain health and benchmarks for dementia? Here are five things I advise you to start thinking about – and acting on – today.
1. Review your family genetics and history.
Get the farmer to have a physical exam with your family doctor; talk about your concerns, and share your observations. Hearing loss, which is common in farmers, can impact brain function, so there are audiologist appointments that may explore this further.
2. Talk to the local Alzheimer’s group.
These groups can offer coping strategies and insight into the many forms of dementia.
3. Be transparent with your farming family.
Let them know what is really going on and educate them as to the next steps. Call a family meeting with a seniors care facilitator from your local health region. If you are very rural and isolated from good support, you may have to create your own team of friends to help you navigate the losses ahead.
“Ambiguous loss” is the term that describes the gradual breaking off of skills from the one who has decreasing brain capacity. This decline evokes fear when you worry about what the farmer will be unable to do next, not knowing how much time you have to get solid plans in place.
4. When does a person become “incompetent” and not of sound mind?
Read that question again. This is where we need a HUGE mindset shift in blasting away procrastination in farm succession.
“I’ll get my will done, Elaine, when the harvest is over. No, when Christmas is past. No, when calving is finished. No, when we get back from down south. No, when Easter is past. No, when seeding is done. No, when spraying is caught up. No, when the fungicide is finished. No, when the harvest is done.”
Yikes! We’ve just gone through a calendar-year of farming pressures, and still, there is no paperwork or documents filed to protect your family’s future. Make an appointment with your lawyer today to review your current will and update alternates for your power of attorney. Explore your legal options.
5. Figure out where the resistance or pushback for getting things done is coming from.
Is it a lack of understanding of legal terms, or accounting requests? This type of resistance is in the HEAD and intellectual pushing back and fear of looking stupid. You need to build a safe, respectful place for conversation with trusted advisors. A farm woman thanked me for telling her husband the implications of dementia. He listened to me but did not get the original message from his doctor. Sometimes messages need to come from several places before the reality of the situation sinks in.
Van Camp’s personal suggestion is to discuss, agree, and write down when action should be taken. For example, her mom has agreed to move to a retirement home when she can no longer pass the driver’s test. She is also well aware of her risk of Alzheimer’s, the symptoms, and when she should talk to her family and her doctor about it. In the meantime, she is still doing wonderful.
Tears flow when emotions are raw. Farmers love their soil, their cows, and their empires that they have toiled hard to create, maintain, and grow. I remember the single tears that would flow down Dad’s cheek when he listened to old-time country music. It was his way of communicating that he was having a good day.
Dementia is about losing brain function, so there is much grief to navigate. Perhaps this is the time to hire a counselor, minister, or care worker who can help you unpack the myriad of emotions swirling in the family dynamic. The resistance or pushback that comes from deep emotion is what I call HEART issues.
Lastly, trust your gut. You intuitively know what the right next step is for your family.
We are all aging, and we are all dying. Please face reality sooner than later.