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Neurological illnesses a danger to self-employed

March 3, 2017
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I am going to discuss a subject I can only discuss from my own personal experience because of its sensitivity. Neurological illnesses, such as Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease, are a particular danger to the self-employed.

If you have cancer or heart disease, the symptoms usually are physical and evident. With neurological illnesses, the onset can be decades in its manifestation, and the symptoms initially will be viewed as an incident not a condition. With neurological disorders, you don't get better, and it may take decades before death. With physical maladies, there is hope for a cure, and if not, the progression will come to its logical conclusion.   

I have Parkinson's disease. It is a neurological disease in which the brain slowly stops producing dopamine, which causes physical loss of strength and debilitating tremors. I do not, at this point, have tremors. The emotional and cognitive malfunction became an issue in 2011, and I sold my business.

First, I want to give you an idea of the length of time it can take to come to a diagnosis. The dates won't be specific because it was so long ago.  I always have walked a lot due to a family history of heart disease. I think it was about 2000 when I went for a morning walk. I had not walked that far before I felt as if my legs were made out of lead. Over the next few years, that happened about once a month. No big deal. Slowly, I noticed an accelerated weakness and difficulty with balance. Nobody noticed because I covered up the problem — then came the emotional issues.

Brad Verker was an employee of mine for several years. He does not remember if it was his wedding or his father’s funeral when the event took place. In any case, he introduced me to his mother, and my brain froze. I could not figure out if it was his mother or wife. Panic!

There are a couple of other events related to my activities with the National Small Business Association. I was in Austin, Texas, in 2000 for a board meeting. I had just lost an older brother to leukemia. He was the fourth brother I had lost, and the one I shared a room with for 16 years. I was troubled by terrible dreams the night before the board meeting. My good friend, Cap Willie, a CPA from Rhode Island, chaired the meeting. Part way through the meeting, the room suddenly seemed to compress down to a tunnel. Cap was at the end of the tunnel, and I could not hear him. I don't know, to this day, if I called out to him. Another incident took place in Las Vegas, where I was chairing a meeting and suddenly did not know why I was there or who the other people were.

These were isolated incidents, but had I talked to someone about them, I might have gotten a better handle on things. With the diagnoses, I began a drug regimen that also had some interesting effects. One drug I took caused me to hear voices — knowing what it was allowed me to deal with it. Hearing my mother calling me at a rest stop near Gaylord was a little quirky since she died in 1986. My association with that medication was short lived.

So, why am I telling this story? Because a lot of loss, pain and misunderstanding can be avoided by the owner, employees, customers and family of a small business if people are aware of the problem and work with it.

As business owners, we are members of a small circle of a special kind of people. While most people seek security, small business owners seek personal growth and financial security through their own efforts. Getting up early and working late is part of who we are. At some point, you have to start being more aware of how you physically and mentally are doing. If people question how you are doing, listen to them. If you have unusual events no matter how bizarre, talk about it. You cannot judge your own effectiveness. Listen and take action. Make sure the legal documents are in place for successors to take charge.

Employees who work in a small business environment usually know their employers on a personal level. You work together every day. If you notice something changing that indicates a lessening of productivity or effectiveness in your employer, speak up. Particularly pay attention to episodes that seem out of character. As you see these problems develop, make sure nothing serious happens to the business in the process. If you are a long-term employee, see the extent to which you fill in the holes developed by your employers’ disability.

If you have a supplier, service or professional relationship that begins to show signs of neurological problems, speak up. Don't lecture, criticize or threaten unless you dislike the person. If they are defensive, have breakfast or lunch together and have a discussion about your observations as a concerned member of their business circle. Our suppliers, advisors and bankers, etc. helped us build our enterprises. The least we can do is ask if they are OK. If the answer is no, then see how you can help.   

Family members often work in the business. If that is your situation, then the task is a little harder. Telling your parent you think their skills are diminishing takes a lot of courage. Love is not always flowers, candy and ice cream. Sometimes, it's tears facing a reality and adjusting to loss. By pretending nothing is wrong, it only will increase the probability something serious will happen to damage the business. Spouses are invaluable in bringing together the resources to do the right thing.

One of your most important resources in your search for a smooth transition for the business owner is the attorney you engage to do the legal work for the transition.

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