Before I began working for Keystone Elder Law last summer, I had no idea that legal practices focused specifically on senior issues existed. The American Bar Association reports that elder law has existed as a practice area for about 25 years. As I have come to learn, this area of law is now rapidly expanding and is one that many people don’t understand. The practice of elder law is complex, involving not only legal issues but financial, social, and moral issues as well. It differs from other areas of law in that the goal is to serve the overall needs of a specific population instead of focusing on technical knowledge in a certain type of law.
According to Lawrence Frolik and Richard Kaplan in their book Elder Law In A Nutshell, there are four trends that have contributed to the development of this type of practice: people are living longer; they have increasing medical costs due to advanced age; their education levels are higher, resulting in increased visibility and communication of their needs; and family dynamics have changed so that adult children who, in the past, may have shouldered caregiving burdens are now unable to do so because of increased job responsibilities outside of the home, living far away, and/or having young children due to delayed childbearing.
The first thoughts that often come to mind when people hear the term “elder law” are wills, trusts, estate planning, and estate administration. There is a perception that an elder law attorney is needed only to help you get your affairs in order before you die. While some elder law attorneys may concentrate on this type of practice, others (including Keystone), focus on the senior as a whole person and seek to address all of the issues that concern the senior and family now as well as later. In addition to the services listed above, information and assistance can also be provided in areas such as preparation for future health care needs and related financial obligations, navigation of the health care system during a crisis, determination of safe housing options based on current and anticipated needs, and development of a caregiver support system. Life Care Planning is the name given to the process which integrates these legal, financial, and geriatric care management issues. This integration allows for a comprehensive and holistic approach to meeting the varied and ever-changing needs of seniors and their families and provides a guide and advocate through the maze of legal, financial, and health care regulations pertaining to each family’s unique situation. A Life Care Planning Attorney will work together with other professionals such as accountants, financial planners, insurance agents, and health care workers to maximize each client’s quality of life and to ensure that his/her needs and goals are being met.
As we age, our needs and goals naturally change. Elder law attorneys understand the dynamics of aging and the resulting moral and social implications that can affect family relationships, decision-making, and planning. These dynamics require unique skills to manage since an elder law attorney frequently works with a family unit in an emotional situation. Knowledge of the law is not enough, and strong interpersonal and problem-solving skills are essential as many situations that elder law attorneys face are not black and white. Sometimes family members don’t always agree on what course of action should be taken or have realistic expectations. Usually, the client is the oldest family member or the one who requires the most care. Even when an individual has dementia and cannot make decisions independently, this individual would still be considered the client, and the attorney would make recommendations based on the client’s best interests.
How do you determine if you need an elder law attorney? Does your situation involve one or more of the following: health and long-term care planning, disability/special needs planning, public benefits (including Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security), powers of attorney and guardianship, determining legal capacity for decision-making, and handling all aspects of an individual’s estate? An elder law attorney can help you put the pieces of your puzzle together. Other issues that are often intertwined with the above needs include insurance; housing; abuse, neglect, or exploitation of a senior; retirement; and identification of and access to public and private resources. The National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (www.naela.org) can help you find an elder law attorney in your area.
One of the first steps that people can take with regard to planning is the completion of essential legal documents. These documents should be periodically updated. We welcome your calls and questions pertaining to elder law matters at any time.
Karen Kaslow, RN
Elder Care Coordinator