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Elder Law Can Help When Illness Interrupts Retirement Dreams

Gail and her husband, Tom, both 55, had been looking forward to their golden years since their last child left the house a decade ago. Recently, however, Gail admitted that their dreams of travel and leisure might not happen. Much of her time was spent attending to the needs of family members, all of which took a toll on her health and finances.

Three years ago Gail began noticing small changes in her mother. First, it was the lost car keys and forgotten appointments; then her mother became lost in her own neighborhood, and Gail discovered her mother had left the stove on overnight. When Gail’s morning calls and evening visits were not enough, she reduced her work hours to spend more time with her mother. Gail and Tom also paid a home healthcare agency to provide help.

The mother’s mental and physical health continued to decline, and she became cooperative in the plan Gail had established, locking out caregivers and refusing to take medications. Gail didn’t know where to turn.

“I was exhausted,” Gayle sighs. “When I wasn’t with Mom, I was making sure someone else was. I just couldn’t do it all anymore.”

At a friend’s recommendation, Gail made an appointment with an elder law attorney. Elder law deals with issues affecting not only the elderly but also people with disabilities and their families. During her visit, Gail was surprised that the lawyer knew the home healthcare agency and memory clinic her mother had been using, and he offered recommendations about structuring the care. Gail told the lawyer about her desire to keep her mother out of a nursing home as long as possible. When discussing her family, Gail also told the lawyer about her daughter’s and grandson’s situations.

Elder law can benefit the entire family

Gail’s daughter had lost her job shortly after a messy divorce.  She suffered from anxiety and depression and couldn’t find work, despite receiving treatment and being stable for months. Gail and Tom supported their daughter financially, and they also watched their 8-year-old grandson frequently.

Gail was sandwiched between the needs of an ill parent and those of a daughter and grandchild. Information about social and financial services was difficult to obtain, particularly when it involved so many issues.

The elder law attorney’s approach is to examine legal issues as well as long-term care issues, including social, family, psychological, medical and financial implications.

“There are a few options you might consider,” the attorney told Gail. First, she might consider obtaining guardianship over her mother, which might help in her mother’s unwillingness to accept the assistance. “It may not solve all the problems, but at least it will legally allow you to keep caregivers at her home; and if transferring your mom to a facility becomes necessary later, you’ll be able to do it.” Guardianship would also allow Gail access to her mother’s funds to use for her care.

In addition, the lawyer made several suggestions:

■    Identifying state and federal programs to help pay for mom’s care

■    hiring a geriatric care manager to evaluate and coordinate the care needs for mom

■    having mom become financially eligible for benefit programs by making small repairs in the home, paying down the home equity loan and purchasing a prearranged funeral plan

■    Hiring Gail’s daughter to provide care for her grandmother through a personal service contract. This would benefit both Gail’s mother and Gail’s daughter

■    If available, having an adult child move into the house to take care of their mother. The adult child could be paid for the services provided, or if the care delayed entry into a nursing home for two years, the mother could gift the home to the child under Medicaid rules for their state

■    Updating Gail’s and Tom’s wills to include special needs trusts for Gail’s mother and daughter. The trusts would allow the beneficiaries to maintain eligibility for public benefits while supplementing their needs with the trust monies

Speaking from a personal standpoint, I find that solving client problems by weaving together community resources, accessing available public benefits and other programs, and dealing with family crises brought on by aging or illness is what makes practicing elder law rewarding. To help people is the reason I went to law school in the first place.

Most elder law attorneys think of their practice as a “legal trauma center.” Family caregivers who are burned out from caring for a loved one, children suddenly dealing with a hospitalized parent, or parents dealing with a special-needs child all face a dizzying array of healthcare issues and planning needs.

Situations like Gail’s are not uncommon, and you may be facing similar circumstances now or later. Although it is not easy, instituting a planning process for elders allows people like Gail and Tom to get some control back and to eventually fulfill those original retirement dreams.

Because laws pertaining to elder issues vary from state to state, to inquire about the above legal points please contact an elder law attorney in your state through the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (www. naela.org). Although this article is based on real-life situations, the names “Gail” and “Tom” are fictitious here.

NAELA: Help for care providers

Established in 1987, the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA) is a non-profit association that assists lawyers, bar organizations and others who work with older clients and their families.The mission of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys is to establish NAELA members as the premier providers of legal advocacy, guidance and services to enhance the lives of seniors and people with disabilities.

NAELA currently has more than 5,000 members across the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. For more information, please contact NAELA at 520-881-4005 or visit www.naela.org.

Christopher Likens is a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA), the immediate past chair of the Elder Law Section of the Florida Bar Association, and a member of the Academy of Florida Elder Law Attorneys. He is aboard-certified elder law attorney in Sarasota, Fla.

Originally Published on GRAND Magazine in January-February 2007 Isuue

Christine Crosby

About the author

Christine is the co-founder and editorial director for GRAND Magazine. She is the grandmother of five and great-grandmom (aka Grandmere) to one. She makes her home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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