Who takes care of the unbefriended elderly?

A critical part of the estate planning process involves the client’s selection of an appropriate person to look out for the client when it’s time for end-of-life decision-making, so that this person can be named in the Health Care Proxy and given access to medical records via a HIPAA Release.. This endeavor seems simple enough, except when there is no one in the client’s life who the client feels may be able or willing to step forward. Perhaps the client’s children have moved far away and are unavailable in an emergency. Perhaps the client is estranged from family and does not want to involve them or friends in the most intimate of decisions. Or perhaps the client simply has outlived her family and friends and there is no one available to look out for her.

Clients like these are known in the elder care world as the “unbefriended elderly.” Roughly 10 years ago, the American Bar Association estimated that 4% of seniors fell into this category. I think that number is now significantly higher, as the size of the typical family has continued to shrink and longevity continues to increase. A terrific article on the New York Times web site discusses the problems which occur for these folks in identifying advocates for end-of-life care.

Under Massachusetts law, employees of hospitals, nursing homes, rest homes, and other “facilities” licensed by the Departments of Public Health, Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities may not act as health care agents unless those employees are actually related to the elder. Thus, doctors, nurses and other employees who may actually have the most intimate knowledge of the elder’s wishes and medical needs are generally barred from acting as a health care agent under a health care proxy. If such persons cannot serve, where does that leave the elder?

Some elder law attorneys will act as health care agents and advocates. I (and most of the elder law attorneys I know) am uncomfortable taking on such a role for my clients for several reasons. First, my training is in law, not social work or medicine, and I do not feel that I have the skills to take on such a task, particularly for persons who I do not know well. Second, my malpractice insurance coverage likely does not extend to making decisions which are clearly medical and not legal in nature. Third, I really cannot promise that I will be available at the drop of a hat to fly to the hospital at the expense of other clients who have the right to expect that I will be diligent in performing work for them. In short, I don’t think it’s fair to my clients or myself that I take on such a role for people to whom I’m not closely related or who are not very close friends. It’s certainly not a role I would wish to assume unless I have known the client for a very long time.

When these situations arise in my practice, I strongly recommend the involvement of a willing geriatric care manager (GCM). These professionals are generally nurses or social workers by training. They have experience navigating medical systems, and physicians are going to be more comfortable speaking with a GCM about medical issues than to a lawyer. A GCM will also cost much less than an attorney to perform such tasks with a level of skill that a lawyer simply will not have. Not all GCMs are comfortable taking on such a responsibility, however.

But what about the situation where the unbefriended elder lacks the funds to hire a GCM? This is a situation which frequently occurs in nursing homes, where the elder’s funds have long been exhausted. As the article notes, there are some non-profits which will step up and have their GCMs or social workers serve, but identifying such organizations is not easy. If there is no health care proxy, then a guardianship may be required if the elder is no longer competent. Since Massachusetts does not have a public guardianship commission, the unbefriended elder will be assigned the next attorney or volunteer on the judge’s list of (usually) uncompensated guardians. This situation is, in my opinion, entirely unsatisfactory.

So… what to do? If you are an unbefriended elder, talk to a geriatric care manager about whether she would be willing to act as your health care agent, and don’t hesitate to ask whether she would continue to act in this role if you run out of funds. Have an elder law attorney draft a health care proxy which makes it clear that the health care agent has the power to authorize or not authorize types of treatment. Make sure you speak with your GCM regularly so that she can get to know you, your values, and your medical needs. But whatever you choose to do, pick your health care agent while you have the ability to find someone who will take care of you.