Brain health and legacy: What you and your heirs need to know

March 08, 2020 | RBC Wealth Management


Olympian Rosie MacLennan talks about the importance of brain health and protecting your legacy.

Mature Women Olympian

Ever since Rosie MacLennan was seven-years-old she knew she wanted to compete in the Olympics. From the outside, the two-time gold medalist seems invincible; an athlete with an incredible track record of winning. But what isn't apparent, is her Olympic dream was nearly cut short by three concussions.

Over the last decade, the 30-year-old trampolinist, from Toronto, Ont., has reached heights she never imagined, and is a favourite to take home the top prize in Tokyo in 2020.

But the combination of a fall in 2012, a 2013 snowboarding accident, another fall in 2015, plus hitting her head on a trunk door just two weeks later, put her career in jeopardy. She started forgetting words, her speech was slurred, she dealt with splitting headaches and, on top of it all, she was battling depression and anxiety, which are concussion-related symptoms. “I was basically living in a fog," she says.

If anyone knows the importance of brain health it's Maclennan, who spent 12 months working with numerous doctors and specialists to treat her symptoms and reduce the inflammation in her brain. While winning the 2016 gold was a miracle considering what she had been through, the experience gave her something more valuable than a medal: an appreciation for good health. “People take brain health for granted until it's taken away," she says. “It's not like a broken arm."

Fortunately for MacLennan, an honorary board member of the Women's Brain Health Initiative, she's young and has had plenty of time to recover, but still makes sure she eats well and takes care of herself in ways she hadn't before the concussion.

If anything can be learned from MacLennan it's that people need to take their health seriously – which, according to research by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), commissioned by RBC Wealth Management, fewer than half do. The new face of wealth and legacy survey found just 46 percent of Canadian respondents say one of their most important life goals is to improve their physical and mental wellbeing.

The survey reached 1,051 high-net-worth-individuals (HNWIs), including 259 respondents in Canada, from March to May, 2018, and explores how the meanings of legacy and wealth are being redefined across regions, genders and generations.

Dementia's financial risk

There's good reason why people should be cautious when it comes to their brain health – when the mind starts to falter, due to dementia, Alzheimer's or other brain diseases, one's hard-earned nest egg is suddenly at risk.

Data from The EIU found 76 percent of older1 women in Canada say wealth to them means financial security, versus 56 percent of younger2 Canadian women.

Statistics from the Women's Brain Health Initiative show women suffer from dementia twice as frequently as men and approximately 70 percent of new Alzheimer's patients are women.

There have been reported cases where people suffering from dementia are taken advantage of financially, or they unintentionally sell investments or write multiple cheques to the same person.

Transactions outside of the norm – which could be a sign of dementia – can be detrimental to someone's financial wellbeing if it's not caught early, says Leanne Kaufman, head of RBC Royal Trust and president and CEO of Royal Trust Corporation of Canada and The Royal Trust Company. “This is a real concern, especially with an aging population," says Kaufman. “(Brain health) and long-term care needs to be part of financial and estate planning."

The more people understand how the brain functions – including how sensitive it is to brain trauma and how it can deteriorate over time – the more they can start planning ahead to preserve their legacy. Fortunately, there are several measures people can take now to protect their future selves.

Appoint a power of attorney

The first place to start is to appoint a financial power of attorney who can make financial decisions on your behalf if you become incapacitated. If you don't have one, and are deemed to be unable to care for yourself, your family members will have to go to court to request they act on your behalf. If more than one person wants to be the power of attorney, a court battle could ensue, says Kaufman.

It goes without saying, but choose someone you trust. It helps if they have some financial knowledge, but as long as they can work with your advisor then it's not a must. Another option is to work with a trust company. “You don't want to pick the wrong person who is negligent and wastes your money away," she says.

Establish a trust

Spouses can also consider establishing an alter ego trust, which is a trust created once someone turns 65 and can only be used by the person who creates it and their spouse. It's a good option for those worried about dementia, because it allows you to appoint a successor trustee who can manage those assets if you're unable to. The trust can be passed down to the next generation after you and your spouse pass away.

There are other advantages to this kind of trust: assets aren't subject to probate and everything inside of it is passed down outside of your Will. This is important because an unhappy family member is less likely to be able to challenge a trust the way they could with a Will.

Account for every account

In any scenario, it's a good idea to communicate your wishes and where your various accounts may be. That's especially important today, where people can have money stored in online accounts that can be difficult to find. “Leave a roadmap of where to find things," says Kaufman. “There's so much we don't keep on paper anymore, even a forensic search through a filing cabinet won't find all of one's assets and liabilities."

While MacLennan doesn't have to worry about dementia yet, concussions can increase the risk of mental incapacitation later in life and she is thinking about how that might impact her finances.

She and her husband are already saving what they can. “Olympic athlete is by no means the most lucrative job," she says, and they're thinking about what could happen if she's unable to manage her own money. “Protecting my husband and our future is important," she says. “If something were to happen to me, whether it's a brain injury or something else, he would take control of my finances. It's something that crosses my mind."

1“Older” is defined as people in the Silent Generation or Baby Boomer generation, born 1964 or earlier.

2“Younger” is defined as people in Generation X or the Millennial generation, born between 1965 and 2000.

In Quebec, financial planning services are provided by RBC Wealth Management Financial Services Inc. which is licensed as a financial services firm in that province. In the rest of Canada, financial planning services are available through RBC Dominion Securities Inc.

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