My dear Grandad passed away just over four years ago. During his life he was a pillar of the community in Kendal (home of Mint Cake) and Morecambe (home of Eric), owning two successful paint and wallpaper shops and speaking regularly at local Women’s Institute events.
He was comfortably off, a regular (if limited) squash player and generally in rude health.
And then, in 2007, Alzheimer’s struck. The decline was slow at first, regularly repeating stories and forgetting what he was talking about mid-sentence. But as the disease took hold, his cognitive ability became seriously impaired, forcing him to give up driving and ultimately surrender his independence.
By the end, he needed round the clock care, unable to walk or even get dressed without the help of a nurse.
I share this story with you not to garner sympathy – my Grandad had a wonderful life and I was lucky enough to live next door to him for 18 years – but to illustrate how a person can quickly and unexpectedly become vulnerable.
According to the Alzheimer’s Society, there are about 850,000 dementia sufferers in the UK today, with the number expected to rise to one million in 2025 and then two million by 2051.
It is perhaps these trends, driven in large part by the growth in the number of older people in society generally, that has prompted the Treasury committee to investigate the treatment of vulnerable people by the financial services industry.
The committee’s probe mainly focuses on the disappearance of banks from the high street, with major institutions increasingly shifting their businesses online. While such strategic moves are driven by market forces, the concern is that large chunks of society risk being cut off from accessing even basic financial services altogether.
Politicians are right to turn the spotlight on this important issue but there is a common misconception that vulnerability is just about older people or those suffering from diagnosed illnesses. The reality is every single person reading this article will, at some stage in their lives, be vulnerable.
The death of a loved one, for example, can leave those left behind in an acutely vulnerable emotional state. I personally suffered from a short, unexpected and debilitating bout of anxiety shortly after my Grandad passed away.
Women often suffer significant mental issues in the wake of childbirth, with some falling into deep depression. Mental illness can equally strike out of nowhere and last for days, weeks, months or even years, with suffering often kept secret even from close family and friends.
Attention on this important topic is long overdue and all involved in delivering financial services, including advisers, have a huge role to play in ensuring vulnerable and potentially vulnerable clients are identified and protected as much as possible.
That said, the committee’s investigation will discover the complexity inherent in even identifying vulnerability, let alone delivering solutions to ensure those who are vulnerable (or risk become so) are properly catered for.
In short, there are no quick fixes – tackling vulnerability requires broad collaboration between firms, regulators, politicians, charities and consumers themselves.
Companies across financial services need to build understanding of vulnerability into their cultures, sharing best practice and continually reviewing and improving the processes put in place to protect consumers.
Tom Selby is senior analyst at AJ Bell