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St.George smiles on 'dementia friendly' facelift

04:10pm September 21 2017

Trevor Crosby, who lives with dementia, says while finding a cure is at the top of his wish-list, ways to increase quality of life for people with the condition is equally important. (Emma Foster)

Australian banks are stepping up efforts to make it easier and safer for people affected by dementia to manage their money as the number of people living with the incurable condition rises.  

St.George Bank, part of Westpac Group, today became the first Australian bank to be accredited as a “Dementia Friendly Bank” by Alzheimer’s Australia at an event to mark World Alzheimer’s Day.

The bank’s retail general manager Ross Miller said a “staggering number” of the bank’s customers have some form of dementia, estimating it to be as high as 123,000. He said bankers were better equipped to create “dementia friendly” banking plans, including setting up withdrawal notifications and limits, and installing “important safe-guards” such as recognising when to start or update a will for customers, and appoint an enduring power of attorney.  

“Fostering a dementia friendly environment will help keep our vulnerable customers financially independent for longer and less prone to financial abuse,” he said.

More than 413,000 Australians are living with dementia, a number that’s expected to swell to more than 1 million by 2050, according to Alzheimer’s Australia. Estimates from the World Health Organisation suggest as many as 47 million are affected worldwide.

It’s one of the most common diseases in the elderly, although around 25,100 Australians with dementia are under the age of 65. The Australian Bureau of Statistics predicts it will overtake heart disease as Australia’s leading cause of death within the next five years.

For those living with the effects of the condition, including memory loss, and feelings of confusion and incompetence,  everyday banking tasks such as remembering a PIN or password can become an unexpected challenge, also increasing the risk of financial abuse.

Trevor Crosby, who ran a 1000 acre farm in rural NSW along with two other businesses for more than three decades, said he experienced the "shock and horror" of being diagnosed with dementia three years ago.

"One minute you're a normal human being and the next you have dementia. Your behaviour changes, you become a recluse, have memory loss, and lots of little things like hallucinations, hand tremors, apprehension.”

The active 68 year old, an Alzheimer’s Australia advocate, is a firm believer that a positive attitude can delay the inevitable. While finding a cure for dementia is at the top of his wish-list, he is also a passionate advocate for ways to increase quality of life for people affected and cites St.George’s actions as a "prime example".  

“The value of something like this is immeasurable. By providing an environment where the banker makes an effort, the feeling of security that provides is very important.”  

To meet Alzheimer’s Australia accreditation, St.George Bank’s customer-facing employees undertook specialised training to help them “walk in the shoes of a person living with dementia” to better recognise and respond to their needs. Branches also had their layout, lighting and signage audited for safety, and technology upgraded to enable customer accounts to be tagged with “vulnerability” alerts to trigger bankers to provide an extra level of care.

In June, The Australian Law Reform Commission released its final report into the financial and physical abuse of the elderly, making 43 recommendations including several aimed at financial institutions. While the government is yet to respond to the recommendations, Attorney-General George Brandis has said elderly abuse “undermines dignity and autonomy” and is “everybody’s responsibility to recognise and respond to”.

Australian banks’ initiatives follow similar moves in other nations. In the UK, The Dementia-Friendly Financial Services Charter was launched in 2013, led by Lloyds Banking Group and The Alzheimer’s Society and supported by major banks, building societies and insurance groups. In New Zealand, Westpac was the first bank to be accredited by Alzheimer’s New Zealand in 2015, and in the US the notion of “elder care” has been built into the practices of many banks for decades.

Maree McCabe, Alzheimer’s Australia national CEO, said she is “extremely pleased” St.George Bank had received official accreditation, noting that financial services were one of the important areas “where we must have more awareness and understanding”.  The peak organisation has been stepping up efforts to encourage the financial services sector to do more for people living with dementia, including the recent pilot of “dementia friendly” initiatives with customer owned lender Beyond Bank in Canberra.

Westpac said it plans to roll out “dementia friendly banking” across its other brands, Westpac, BankSA and Bank of Melbourne.

Emma Foster is a freelance writer. Previously, she led Westpac Wire and was a key contributor until December 2022. Prior to joining Westpac in 2013, she spent almost 20 years in corporate affairs and investor relations, primarily in large financial services and consultancy firms, in Australia, UK and Europe. She is also a photographer and podcaster.

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