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Legal Ease: Asking ‘Is my bed still there?’

Introduction — This month’s article is one of my favorites. Although I wrote it several years ago it seems worth sharing in today’s Covid-19 nursing home world of quarantines, isolation, loneliness, and dying alone without comfort of those most loved.

It’s been about 30 years since my family was served by a remarkable public servant. Our postman became a friend. He knew us by our first names and he was Harold to us. He carefully watched for our cat, Samantha, as he drove down the street, knowing that she, suffering from hallucinations of being a dog, would gleefully run to the postal truck as it approached. Samantha knew that the truck carried her friend, too, and neither she nor Harold seemed to tire of their game. Many mail carriers since Harold have come and gone, but Harold is who we remember.

Recently, a thin and fragile lady, her short silver hair stylishly coiffured, came to my office accompanied by her two daughters. “We had to put Harold in a home,” she said. “He became too ill for me to handle. You know him,” said his still perky and pretty wife. “He was your postman.”

“How is he doing there?”, I asked.

“O.K.”

“O.K. ?”

“Well, not too well. But there’s no way that he can be cared for at home.”

She wiped away a tear. You could sense the sorrow she felt because, lively as she was, she no longer could care for her once sturdy but now feeble husband. “When I wake up,” she continued, “my pillow is wet. I must cry in the night. But in the day, I’m strong.”

“You feel that you shouldn’t cry?”, I asked. There was no response.

“It’s healthful to cry – and you can cry here.”

Then a daughter interjected – there is discomfort in Mom’s crying or needing to cry –

“I saw Dad this morning. He asked, “Is my bed still there?”

We didn’t discuss what he meant, but isn’t the imagery a glimpse into the soul of the ill and aging patient, and perhaps into those who love him as well?

“Am I going home someday? I haven’t given up. Has your mother? If my bed is still there then there is still reason to hope.” The possibility, however remote, to return home, if only to die there, is not abandoned. Yet, there is so much melancholy. . . like my elderly friend, responding to my compliment about her new coat, who sadly said,

“This is my last coat.”

Elder Lawyers deal with sadness in our practices. Our clients often are depressed. . . afraid; . . . angry. They are looking for relief.

While nursing homes are far better than before, Elders often are demeaned in these end-life homes, called by their first names by persons whom they don’t know and don’t care to know, decades their juniors. They’re told what to do and when to do it. For some, their calls for help echo in the nursing home hallways, pathetically unanswered. No Ombudsman can work the miracle that patients hope for — a cure for old age frailty — a return to their homes and to a life they fantasize experiencing again.

Despite uplifting names and dedicated staffs, these human warehouses are not home. Our loved ones’ presence, other than for revenue, is unwanted. Death is the ultimate destination for each of these residents. The nursing homes are designed to accomplish this. They hold, not cure; confine, make possible physical comfort-care when it is nowhere else available.

The elders’ feelings are distressingly ignored. They are sometimes thoughtlessly treated as the breathing dead. One nursing home I visit, for example, is across the street from a large cemetery, a stone’s throw to the nearest grave marker. This setting is reminiscent of the inscription at the entrance to hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy, “Abandon all hope, you who enter.”

Among the first books I bought as a young lawyer was one entitled, The Successful Practice of Law. This “success book” had no chapter on elder law. It did not mention nursing homes or even suggest that a client would ever be seen other than in the serenity of the lawyer’s office. I don’t know what the word “successful” meant in the book’s title, but I suspect that it emphasized the lawyer’s prosperity and self-interest.

Success for Elder lawyers, and for all conscientious lawyers, is making a positive difference in the lives of those who ask us for help. This means we go where we are needed, we enter into the world and time in life where our clients reside, and while there we listen, not lecture; by our presence and efforts to help and understand we affirm that we care. We hold the thin skeletal hands of those whom we are called to comfort, and in this posture we feel each palpitation of our clients’ weary and burdened hearts. We are affected, too, by the emotions exposed by the imminence of death.

This urging to make the lives of elders more joyful, less fearful, is the singular quality of all who practice elder law. We seek to make a positive difference in the lives of older others. Our concern for and appreciation of their human values and human capabilities, even in the evening of their life, allows us to feel like “successful” lawyers. This is why I choose to be an Elder Lawyer.

***

Gerald W. Townsend, an Elder Law Attorney, is a partner in the law firm of Fluharty & Townsend, where he focuses on Medicaid nursing home planning to save life savings and the home from nursing home costs, and estate planning. He can be reached at jtownsend@fntlawoffices.com

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