By Erika Webb
They aren't attorneys. They aren't doctors. And they aren't CPAs. They aren't selling anything.
Alice Clark, Debra Howard, Debra Hogan and Robert Chapman are the voices, hands, feet and solution seekers for those in need. They are Financial Advocates of Central Florida Inc., a DeLand-based firm specializing in eldercare financial and personal assistance services for 25 years.
In 1988, Alice Clark was a stockbroker with Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith. Debra Howard was a stockbroker for Dean Witter Reynolds. Their positions allowed them to see an unsatisfied need in the community.
"We each had clients who were elderly and didn't have anyone to write checks for them or keep up with day-to-day financial chores. They were easy prey for scammers," Ms. Clark said. "I couldn't find anybody to help them. I thought about it and didn't know of anybody else doing it, so I decided to do it myself."
Two and a half decades later they are doing a lot more than writing checks and keeping gates.
They visit clients in hospitals, nursing homes and rehab centers. They gather information for CPAs at tax time, balance checkbooks, serve as trustees or personal representatives, coordinate appointments and even accompany clients to doctor visits. In some cases, they are medical surrogates. In others, they are the eyes and ears for family members who live out of town and are unable to personally monitor a loved one's well-being.
"We know a little bit about a lot of stuff," Ms. Howard said. "We know enough to say, 'You need to go see a doctor, a lawyer or other professional.'"
The two were acquainted through a women's group and when Ms. Clark told Ms. Howard what she had in mind, Ms. Howard was more than ready to join forces.
Theirs' are not bankers' hours. There are emergent 3 a.m. phone calls. Duty calls on weekends, too.
"When we first started, we thought we would just balance their checkbooks, pay their bills and that would be that," Ms. Clark said. "But we become surrogate family to them. We become very close to our clients. With some of them it's like ... I wish she was my mom."
Financial Advocates' client base has grown from five or six clients that first year to around 120 and climbing today.
In 2000, Debra Hogan, a Certified Senior Advisor who had worked in the accounting field, was hired to help with the increasing client base.
Robert Chapman III was a trust administrator with Sun Trust Banks for more than 15 years. A graduate of Florida Trust School at the University of South Florida, Mr. Chapman brought more than 20 years of financial experience to the company, and helped Financial Advocates expand to the east side of the county, providing a location in Ormond Beach.
Mr. Chapman said something that sets Financial Advocates apart is they go to the client.
"It's easier to meet them where they live or at a facility," he said.
With changing times, the larger accounting firms, which used to set up divisions for eldercare, have eliminated those services.
"And the Council on Aging cut so much," he said. "They'll still set up guardianships and we don't do that."
Mr. Chapman agreed with Ms. Clark and Ms. Howard that clients become like family.
Each representative has his or her own clients, but is ready to fill in for the others when needed.
"It's important for (clients) to know they're not alone if someone is on vacation," Ms. Howard said.
Aside from financial counseling, bill paying and estate planning, insurance issues are a large area of importance, especially as times change and people get older.
Perhaps most importantly, Financial Advocates helps clients maximize insurance benefits, file with carriers, maintain records and verify correct payments. Sorting through the confusion and following up on questions or problems with insurance companies and hospitals is daunting and time consuming. It requires experience and know-how to navigate the process. Someone who's been ill may not have the strength or where-with-all to slog through it.
Ms. Howard and Ms. Clark said some of the biggest changes over the past 25 years have occurred in the medical and banking industries -- two areas of major import to senior citizens.
"Modern medical science has allowed more tests and services," Ms. Howard said. "But when we first started there was not a law that a provider had to file Medicare. We did that for them. Now it's wonderful because (the claim) goes directly from the provider to Medicare and then generally to the secondary, making it easier for the patient, our client."
"Now people are going to specialists so much more," Ms. Clark added. "It's just keeping up with everything they've got going on."
Since banking has gotten less personal and more transient, it's become increasingly complicated to conduct business on someone else's behalf.
"We used to have relationships with local bankers," Ms. Clark said. "They'd know us and know we were there for our clients, that we weren't trying to rip anyone off. Now, you have to show ID just to make a deposit. If we're given a choice, we're going to a small bank."
Membership in the American Association of Daily Money Managers provides Financial Advocates associates ongoing opportunities to learn more -- through webinars, conferences, continuing education and networking -- about options for their clients in today's constantly changing world.
A balance between honesty, integrity, confidentiality, practical and specialized knowledge and genuine caring and compassion had to be achieved for this unique company to endure for a quarter century, especially through challenging economic conditions, globally.
Networking in the community is paramount in determining which professionals in countless areas of expertise are right for the people whose lives are entrusted to Financial Advocates.
So are organization and flexibility.
"Some clients we may see once a month, some twice a month and some every week or every day if there's a crisis," Ms. Clark said. "The only time it gets really hairy is when three or four are having a crisis at the same time."
It is well-understood by now that every client is different; every client's needs are different; and that those needs will change as time goes on, she said.
"Sometimes they just need someone to go in 15 minutes a month to check on them, but then they get sick and have to go into a nursing home and we'll go in every day and get their mail, do whatever needs to be done," Ms. Clark said.
It's also about maintaining discretion when answering to concerned family members who live elsewhere while adhering to the clients' wishes for independence and privacy.
Situations arise where family members don't necessarily want to delve into every intimate detail about a clients' financial business, and the client doesn't want them to, either. But a Financial Advocates representative will assure them the client is secure, and that eases a relative's mind, Ms. Clark said.
To this day, Financial Advocates derive the majority of their business from referrals, satisfied professionals whose clients they've helped and families who've learned firsthand the company is above-board, trustworthy and not out to sell products or capitalize from their position.
"We weren't competing with anyone and we weren't selling anything," Ms. Clark said. "When you're in charge of someone's life you can't be selling them products."
No two days, no two people, are alike. At the end of 25 years of strung-together days, members of the Financial Advocates team are well satisfied.
"We've worked very hard in this business, but we've also been very blessed in this business," Ms. Howard said. "We have met some of the most interesting and terrific senior citizens and families."
Ms. Clark nodded in agreement.
"It has its rewards and they're not just monetary," she said. "We've made lifelong friends."