May is right around the corner, and in addition to celebrating the arrival of spring, this month has been designated as Older Americans Month and National Elder Law Month. The theme for Older Americans Month is “Blaze a Trail”, which is exactly what some elder law firms are doing as they advocate for older adults and their families.
If you open the telephone book or search online, a number of attorneys will advertise the practice of elder law, often thought of as estate planning (wills and powers of attorney) and estate administration (the execution of a will and management of the financial affairs of an individual who has passed away). Law firms which focus specifically on elder law realize that there is much more to this area of practice than just documents and legal forms. Consider the following more complicated scenarios:
- Husband and wife, both in their 80’s, are still living at home. Wife is caregiver for her husband, who has advanced Parkinson’s disease and dementia. Both sons live out of state. The house is the couple’s primary asset. Wife is hospitalized due to frail health, and sons begin to contribute to the cost of 24 hour home care for their father. Sons believe it is no longer safe for either parent to remain at home, but are unsure where to find the care that is needed and how to coordinate the sale of the house with payments for care.
- Husband and wife, both in their 80’s, have been living independently in a retirement community for a number of years. Husband, who usually handled the couple’s responsibilities and made decisions, begins to experience health issues and eventually moves to the nursing home on campus. Wife, who battles anxiety, is now living alone. Their daughter, who lives halfway across the country, is trying to oversee their care and feels that she doesn’t have the appropriate information to assist with their health care decisions.
- A widowed gentleman, also in his 80’s, shares his home with his son. A stroke leaves him unable to stay alone during the day while his son works. Son wants to help his father stay at home, but father has limited assets to pay privately for home care, and his monthly income is just over the limit to qualify for financial assistance.
Some elder law firms are blazing a trail for seniors like those mentioned above by offering care coordination services in addition to traditional legal services. Health care needs and legal/financial situations are often intertwined for older adults. These adults and their families are offered a more holistic approach to managing both health and legal/financial issues when they can rely on professional guidance to help them navigate the complicated system of long term care as it relates to their specific needs and goals. With knowledge about local resources and trusting relationships with care providers, these firms seek to connect clients with the most appropriate services and ensure smoother transitions for both clients and service providers when bumps in the road occur.
The above scenarios are actually real people. The first couple ended up moving to a retirement community. Guidance was provided so that the husband would qualify for medical assistance in the nursing home, leaving more assets for the wife to cover the cost of personal care. Both were in the same building, so visiting was just a matter of walking across a lobby and down a hall. An agreement was drafted with the community to ensure the availability of assets from the future sale of the house for the cost of care. Within several months after moving in, there was a noticeable improvement in the wife’s physical health, as she no longer had to do the physical lifting that some caregiving tasks required.
The second couple and their daughter benefited from the availability of a professional outside of the retirement community to visit both husband and wife, provide objective observations, help identify questions and suggest potential solutions so that the daughter felt more connected to what was happening with both of her parents. The wife remains in her independent living cottage. The husband’s health took a sudden turn for the worse, and assistance was provided to arrange support for him to return to the cottage and die at home.
The last individual remains at home with his son, with the support of a local program. Financial assistance was able to be obtained so that the care arrangements are affordable for the family.
These situations may sound like neat packages that are each tied with a bow, but some creative thinking and planning was required in order to achieve these best possible outcomes. Flexibility and cooperation by service providers was also an essential element in these success stories. When obtaining appropriate care is combined with legal and health system knowledge, most family situations involving seniors that won’t fit neatly into a box can be sorted through and resolved so that stress is reduced and all parties are as comfortable as possible with the result. Call it elder law or elder care, either way the right law practice can help you blaze a trail through your wilderness.
Karen Kaslow, RN