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Law Office Management

Jun. 2, 2015

An Elder Law Attorney Learns from Advocacy

A lawyer for elders gets an unexpected education, in life and on the job.

Time has raced by since I got my bar card 20 years ago and my first and only law job - with California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform. And I must admit it took a long time to appreciate what it actually means to be an advocate; the lessons didn't come easily - and most often they came from unexpected sources.

Our nonprofit organization helps consumers navigate the long-term care system and advocates for better care in the state's long-term care facilities. Part of my work is to counsel vulnerable elders - defined as those 65 and older who are neglected or abused. When I was fairly new to the job, an agitated woman named Barbara called to say her landlord had tampered with her refrigerator, causing it to emit poisonous gas. I told her I couldn't help because her complaint had nothing to do with elder abuse. She protested that she was 50 and an elder, but I explained she didn't qualify because she wasn't 65. She countered that she was an elder because her chiropractor told her she had the body of a 65 year-old. Deflecting the call, I politely told her to call Adult Protective Services, then hung up.

I thought it was kind of a funny story, until I shared it with my chiropractor, who told me the woman was very likely being bilked in a common scheme in which crooked practitioners scam patients by telling them they are aging at an unnatural rate and need special treatments to reverse the process. Learning that, I felt ashamed about my interaction with the caller. I was supposed to be an advocate, not an unsympathetic jerk. And since I had not bothered to take down Barbara's number, I had no way of contacting her.

Afterward, I tried to be empathetic and to listen more carefully to what the callers were saying. That change in attitude made a difference in how I felt about my work and is probably why I have been able to stay at it two decades.

One of the most heart-breaking episodes occurred while I was doing intake for a man whose wife had just been placed in a nursing home. When I asked the caller for his address, there was a pause - and in that pause, I could feel the utter depth of his despair as he realized she would never be coming back home again. I am still haunted by that call, but it taught me the essential lesson that in addition to being compassionate and empathetic, an advocate must maintain strong personal boundaries.

One of the most gratifying interactions I had was helping with an issue that, again, seemed to have nothing to do with elder abuse. A man called the office, worried because a coroner was planning to list his mother's cause of death as suicide - and the family, for religious reasons, needed the cause to be accidental. His mother, who had a mental illness, had walked out of a dentist appointment, then was run over by a car while lying in the street. Although witnesses had seen her on the sidewalk frantically waving her arms, nobody actually saw her lie down in traffic, including the driver, who claimed to be rolling up the backseat window at that moment. I sympathized, but told the son I didn't know what I could do for him. And this time, I took the man's number and said I'd call if I thought of a solution.

Later, I recalled an earlier conversation with a county coroner who rattled off various causes that could be listed on death certificates - "undetermined" being one of them. I called back the son and suggested he contact the coroner and say it was possible his mother's death wasn't a suicide because she may have been trying to get someone to stop and help her, and because of her mental limitation, she decided lie in the road to make a driver stop.

A week later, I received a letter of thanks from the son explaining that the coroner did not list the death as a suicide.

I'm still sorry I missed the chance to help Barbara.

Prescott Cole is the senior staff attorney at California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform.


Donna Mallard

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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