When I was in law school, many of my classmates had goals of being so-called “high-powered” attorneys working in large firms, working for the public defender’s office, or planning to be prosecuting attorneys. When sharing my desire to be an elder law attorney, I would often receive blank stares and questions as to what type of work that would involve. I do not know of one other person in my graduating law class who wanted to work with seniors and be an elder law attorney.
My interest in elder law predates even my decision to go to law school. I had a close relationship to my maternal grandmother because I was her first grandchild and she looked after me in my earliest years while my parents worked. Later, when I was out of high school my grandfather was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. My grandmother could not take care of him by herself, so I moved in with them while attending college. I watched him deteriorate and was there when my grandmother faced the ordeal of moving him into a nursing home. At that time I knew nothing of Medicaid or veteran’s benefits. I don’t think my grandmother ever received assistance while he was in the nursing home for about a year before he died.
In addition to dealing with illness and long-term care for an elderly loved one, I saw the difficulties my grandparents faced in dealing with everyday things that people of my generation take for granted. For instance, to this day my grandmother has never used a computer. Give her a typewriter and she’s a wiz, she even wrote a whole book on one, but she has no desire to even attempt using a computer. No emailing her! I don’t think she used an ATM machine before I moved in with her and I finally convinced her that she could also use a debit card at the grocery store instead of carrying her checkbook everywhere. These are minor things that anyone could certainly live without, but there were other issues I noticed.
Living with my grandmother for over four years as an adult, I saw the difficulties older brains can have with understanding and communicating with customer service issues. Many of us complain that we can’t reach an English-speaking person when calling the bank, insurance company, or computer tech line, but her issues went much deeper. She couldn’t understand the concepts and had a hard time expressing what she needed. My grandmother was an intelligent, well-read woman, but she would often become flustered when trying to deal with the phone or cable company — not to mention there are a lot of people and companies out there that prey on the elderly. We have all heard of people losing thousands of dollars in financial scams. Really seeing how seniors can be taken advantage of touched my heart and gave me a desire to work with the aging population in some capacity. I wanted to be an advocate for a sometimes forgotten generation.
I may not be someone that stops a scam artist or calls the phone company for my clients, but I love how I can help a family that is facing one of the hardest periods in their loved one’s life, transitioning from independent living to assisted living or skilled nursing, and make that transition a little easier. There is a reason attorneys sometimes are called attorneys and counselors at law; much of what we do in advising clients is listening and counseling them through difficult situations. It helps to have people share your burdens, and I believe that helping my clients understand where to go and how to pay for the care they need eases not only the burdens of caregivers, but helps the seniors themselves accept the new chapter of their lives with grace and dignity.
Some people have mottos they try to live by – mine is Proverbs 31: 8-9 “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” I try everyday to give help where needed and the aging community holds a special place in my heart. I see my grandmother’s smile in every client I meet.