What is an elder law attorney? The national labor force continues to trend towards more refined specialization both in technical trades and professional callings. This is particularly inevitable in the area of law, where in the US an average of approximately 14,000 new enacted laws, passed resolutions and other legislation have been added to the body of law each two-year Congress for the last 40 years. These additions peaked in 1974 when a total of 26,222 new laws were passed. Obviously in the face of this no single attorney can hope to be a “general practitioner” and competently provide expertise or even advice across such a broad field.
Whilst most people are familiar with terms such as contract law, criminal law or taxation law, “elder law” (or elder care law) as a separate field of practice only gained identity during the 1980s. A need to provide legal services specific to the increasingly complicated concerns of seniors became apparent, not simply because of an increase in newly passed laws, as mentioned above, but rather because of social change. The role of a senior citizen’s family a generation or two ago would have unconsciously included the comprehensive care of their elders. The family social structure has evolved considerably since that time, and the expectations of elders have changed along with this.
Social Changes Affecting Today’s Elders
In the US, seniors are living in retirement for a larger percentage of their lifespan. Average life expectancy has risen from 53yrs in 1950 to 78.5yrs in 2009, yet the normal retirement age for social security purposes has only recently increased from 65 to 67 years. The social pattern of sixty years ago was shared care of the elderly by stay-at-home family members. Today seniors prefer to maintain an independent lifestyle for the 10 plus years they will be in retirement, and their adult children are less available to be the unpaid caretakers of their aging parents.
Apart from these quantitative social changes, other aspects of aging include the rapid cultural stratification induced by society’s technological advance which can leave seniors feeling bewildered, frustrated and socially inept. Besides practical considerations, this “culture shock” can result in anything from poor social integration to very clear psychological pressures, especially for seniors with minimal family support.
The Role of an Elder Law Attorney
So, what is an elder law attorney? Some of the client services typically offered by elder attorneys will include advice relating to medical insurance cover, other life insurance-type policies and planning for long-term care. Converting the family home into an asset towards the cost of retirement accommodation or nursing home solutions can involve complex legal contracts, and documents relating to wills, estates and guardianship of vulnerable elders are other areas addressed by elder care law attorneys.
As can be seen from the partial job description above, elder law practice can overlap into an advisory role on financial, medical, custodial and other legal matters, making it necessary to tailor a series of solutions according to the needs of each individual client. A reputable attorney will also provide his client’s family with additional community contacts if he identifies services for which the elder should be eligible, and otherwise source further support for his client’s well-being. Elder law practice will also extend into a working knowledge of up to date entitlements available for veterans, special needs workers and disability clients. On the protective side of legislation, an elder law attorney will be aware of the disturbing modern trend of elder abuse, and suggest appropriate legal clauses in his client’s contracts that reduce elder vulnerability.
Despite complexities, and the challenges inherent in providing individualized client legal care, the primary role of the elder law attorney, indeed of any attorney, is to provide professional protection at law and dignity for the senior person and their family.