Aging: What is an Elder Law Attorney?

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Guest:  Dennis Christenson – Elder Law Attorney

Host:  Sally 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.


Dennis Christenson:  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.


Sally Smith:  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?


Dennis Christenson:  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.


Sally Smith:  So, you help with the networking?


Dennis Christenson:  Yes.


Sally Smith:  You put them in touch with the ones that can help them if it’s outside of a legal document situation?


Dennis Christenson:  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. 


Sally Smith:  When you become a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, what are the criteria for being in that organization?


Dennis Christenson:  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. 


Sally Smith:  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?


Dennis Christenson:  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.


Sally Smith:  I see.  So, it’s more of an interest group, as opposed to getting a medical degree or a certain certification? 


Dennis Christenson:  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.


Sally Smith:  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?


Dennis Christenson:  I mean, I would say, in a nutshell, it’s an educational organization.


Sally Smith:  I see. 


Dennis Christenson:  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.


Sally Smith:  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?


Dennis Christenson:  What they would do is go on the internet.  The website is  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. 


Sally Smith:  Wow.  That is so interesting.


Dennis Christenson:  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 membership.


Sally Smith:  Wow.  That sounds like a very valuable way to be spending your time.


Dennis Christenson:  Right.


Sally Smith:  Thank you so much for speaking with us about elder law attorneys.  I appreciate your coming in today.


Dennis Christenson:  Thank you.


Sally Smith:  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 a parent with dementia.  Just click on Sally Smith’s name under the Health Professionals tab on the Podcast home page.  All profits support research at the Center on Aging.  Thanks.

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