BDO’s Maggie Van Camp, leader of agricultural development, 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?
- 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. There is a confusing, paralyzing mixture of tax implications, legal ease and potential family infighting and emotions.”
Add the explosive mix of the silently creeping illness of farmer dementia or decreased cognitive functioning of the key decision maker, be that Mom or Dad, the owners of the farm assets. There is a wave of risk for agriculture’s legacy that we need to act on now!
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 2019; I am seeing farmers under 60 dealing with forgetfulness impacting their ability to manage a farm, and those at 70 who still cannot believe how many details they are forgetting on a daily basis.
What’s the urgency for farm transition? What is at risk?
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?
My dad started putting his Corn Flakes box in the fridge which was duly noted by a boarder in his home. Thankfully we got the home care co-ordinator 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. Not all 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 per cent 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 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.
What steps can you take to explore better brain health and benchmarks for dementia?
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 for 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 which describes the gradual breaking off of skills from the one who has decreasing brain capacity. This decline evokes fear when you worry 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 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 fungicide is finished, no when 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 push-back for getting things done is coming from.
Is it a lack of understanding legal terms, or accounting requests? This type of resistance is in the HEAD, an intellectual pushing back and fear of looking stupid. You need to build a safe, respectful place for conversation with trusted advisers. 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 wonderfully.
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 he was having a good day. Losing brain function is loss, so there is much grief to navigate. Perhaps this is the time to hire a counsellor, minister or care worker who can help you unpack the myriad of emotions swirling in the family dynamic. The resistance or push-back that comes from deep emotion is what I call HEART issues.
Lastly, trust your gut. You intuitively know what is the right next step for your family.
We are all aging and we are all dying. Please face the reality sooner than later.