Christenson – Elder Law Attorney
Smith - Author/Resource literature on age-related
disease and healthy aging
Sally Smith: Welcome to Age to Age. I’m Sally Smith. Let’s talk.
Today, we’re fortunate to have Dennis Christenson with us. Dennis is a member of the National Academy of
Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA). Dennis,
thank you for coming in today.
Dennis Christenson: Well,
you’re welcome. I’m enjoying being here.
Sally Smith: Now, what is
meant by the term elder law attorney? I’m not familiar with that term.
Well, an elder law attorney not only does the normal things you think
lawyers do in terms of preparation of wills, powers of attorney, and living
wills, they also deal with the special problems that people have as they get
older, including what happens when you’re diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. What if you need to get into a nursing home,
or what happens if you have public benefits?
So, we deal with the kind of non-document types of issues that older
people have in terms of making sure they get proper care, making sure they get
good legal advice, and making sure that we can enhance the quality of their
life through financial, medical or health decisions.
Wow. That’s much more
comprehensive than I thought. I thought
it was going to be all legal documents.
In other words, you become, in a sense, an advisor on other issues as
well, an enabler, is that what I’m
hearing you say?
I mean, I would say that of a one and a half hour conference with a
client, maybe twenty minutes is spent with legal issues. The rest of it is with caring issues,
sometimes just listening, dealing with family issues. We’re kind of like a general practice
doctor. They treat all of the different
issues that an older person presents with.
We make sure that they get appropriate help, either legal help or direct
them to people who can provide financial assistance, or medical assistance.
So, you help with the networking?
You put them in touch with the ones that can help them if it’s outside
of a legal document situation?
Yeah. I mean, the legal documents
are just kind of the structure. What
goes inside the structure are the personal issues, the health issues, the
financial issues. We assist people with
getting in touch with the right people to meet whatever their needs are.
When you become a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys,
what are the criteria for being in that organization?
Well, one of the criteria is that you have to evidence a commitment to
working with the elderly and dealing with the special problems that the elderly
have. Beyond that, there are national
conferences that are carried out three times year that you attend. There’s a listserv where you can receive
information. It’s very important to keep
current with the various issues surrounding caring for the elderly because
they’re so fluid and they change so much.
I was a member of the board of directors for NAELA a
few years ago, and it gave me an opportunity to see, firsthand, all the
different problems that the elderly face, and I’m better able to take care of
those in my practice.
When you say you have to demonstrate a focus with issues having to do
with the elderly, do you submit a paper to this board that says you’ve worked
with elderly people in 80 percent of your
practice, or do you take a test, do you get voted on? How do they decide they’re going to let you
in, and not somebody else?
Well, the organization, currently, is about 5,000 members and there
isn’t any credentialing requirement. In
other words, there isn’t a test that you have to pass. There isn’t a selection process that you have
to go through. It’s just a matter of
applying, showing that you have had some background and experience. And, beyond that, that’s all that’s required.
I see. So, it’s more of an interest group, as opposed to getting a
medical degree or a certain certification?
Yes. There is no degree
required. But once you become a member,
there are opportunities to kind of develop specialties, or areas that you
enjoy, within the organization itself by going to certain programs they have to
get that added experience.
So, they do educational focus?
These three meetings a year you say you attend, they’re all about
educating elder law attorneys on what’s new, what’s happening, is that a lot of
the focus of your meetings?
I mean, I would say, in a nutshell, it’s an educational organization.
It gets involved in helping to educate its members and, also, the public
about issues concerning elder law. It’s
also an advocacy organization. It
advocates in Congress to try to get bills passed that are favorable to elders. So, it’s an education and advocacy
organization, as opposed to a credential organization where you have some
particular credentials that you can add by virtue of joining.
I see. One question: if someone
were interested in looking into finding an elder law attorney, obviously, we
know you’re one here, but say they’re listening to our program from some other
place in the United States, is there some sort of a listing, do you have a
website? How would one find out whether
a lawyer was an elder care attorney, or just some other kind of attorney?
What they would do is go on the internet. The website is www.naela.org. There, you will get a list of the elder law
attorneys who are members of the organization in your state. And, also, there’s a wealth of information on
the website for people who are looking to find out more, perhaps, about wills
and powers of attorney. And, again,
because of its educational bent, there are a lot of neat things on the website
that can assist someone who is looking for information or a place to go.
Wow. That is so interesting.
There’s, also, another organization I belong to called the Special Needs
Alliance. That’s an organization that
was started by me and some others about six years ago which deals with the
legal, financial and medical needs of people with disabilities. So, we help people qualify for public
assistance, make sure that their benefits are taken care of, and help them get
assistance for what they need. So, one
organization is for elder law attorneys.
The other organization that I belong to is for people with disabilities,
whether they’re children, adults, spouses, anyone that has a disability, we try
to help them. That organization is by
invitation only from the organization, and there are some requirements for
attending programs that have to be complied with in order to continue with your
Wow. That sounds like a very
valuable way to be spending your time.
Thank you so much for speaking with us about elder law attorneys. I appreciate your coming in today.
Thank you all, our listeners out there, for joining us today. Please give your comments and suggestions on
our website. This is Sally Smith, Age to Age, saying good-bye and wishing
you courage and joy on your journey. We
are all connected.
If you enjoy
listening to Sally Smith, you can buy her book, The Circle. It’s the story of how she personally
responded to her mother’s journey with Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a wonderful gift of hope for anyone with
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the Center on Aging. Thanks.