What you don't know will cost you with elder law

- First, let’s debunk the most costly misperception: Elder law is not for “old” people!

Defining “elder” is not an easy task. Rather, attorneys who practice elder law focus on the clients served and their particular needs, as opposed to clients of a certain age, or defining elder law by the services provided.

Regardless of how you might define “elder,” the overall age of the Texas population is increasing at a rapid rate. According to the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services, 3.8 million Texas residents were age 60 or older in 2010, making up 15 percent of the total population. The number of residents over 60 is expected to triple by 2050, growing to 12 million and making up 22 percent of the population.

As we age, our needs (both financial and legal) change. In our 20s and 30s our focus is typically on family and raising children, career, and/or schooling. As we grow older, our needs shift to saving for retirement, and health care. Failing to plan for these needs can result in severe financial distress as well as emotional distress on a family.

Furthermore, disability can strike any person of any age, regardless of their financial status, In fact, Texas ranks 2nd highest of all states for residents with a disability. Depending on the type of disability, significant care could be required.

The need for long-term care and the cost

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 70% of people age 65 and older will some type of long-term care. The type and length of care can vary, but on average 20% will need care for 5 years or longer.

Who will pay for this care? The average cost of assisted living care in Texas is just over $3,500 per month (for room and board only), and nursing home costs average between $4,500 per month (semi-private room) to over $7,000 per month for a private room. Again, this figure just represents the basic room and board cost and does not include prescriptions or any other additional care costs that may be required. Medicare will not pay for long-term care services, therefore (in the absence of a long-term care policy) families must pay out-of-pocket for these expenses, rely on family and friends for care, or look to government benefits like Medicaid for assistance.

Family caregivers are losing money and putting their health at risk

In 2013, Texas had 3.35 million family caregivers who provided 3.12 million hours of care.  In fact, 65% of older persons rely exclusively on family and friends for assistance with 66% of that care provided by women. Much of this care is unpaid, and the caregiver misses work, has to burn vacation time, and loses out on important promotions and advancements.

There are negative health effects that have been documented in caregivers, in particular those caring for a loved one with dementia. Caregivers experience higher levels of depression and anxiety, elevated blood pressure and poorer immune function, to name a few.

A will is not enough

A will is only effective upon a person’s death. It is critical for Texans who are growing older to consult with an elder law attorney to make sure important planning documents are created. In particular, health care and financial directives that name an agent to make decisions in the event of incapacity are critical documents for anyone to have. Without these documents, a court may have to intervene, costing the family thousands of dollars and a great deal of stress, and could result in a non-family member being appointed to make these important decisions. Failing to have proper legal documents can also open the door for exploitation by older Texans by third parties – a growing trend throughout the United States.

Elder law attorneys can not only assist with the planning documents mentioned above, but they also counsel clients about long-term care decisions – what might be available, how to pay for it, and how to protect against financial devastation if a health care crisis  (or disability) strikes. The sooner a person talks to an elder law attorney and puts a plan in place, the less stress occurs on the family, and the risk of financial devastation in case of a health care crisis or disability is far less.

ElderCounsel is a membership organization of elder law attorneys dedicated to helping clients with exactly the issue discussed above. ElderCounsel has numerous attorney members in Houston and throughout Texas who are equipped to help. Visit  http://www.eldercounsel.com/ to access the membership directory and view profiles of qualified elder law attorneys in your area.

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Valerie Peterson, J.D., is the chief executive officer of ElderCounsel LLC, a firm dedicated to the professional development and full practice support of elder law attorneys. She also speaks frequently throughout the U.S. on topics pertaining to elder law, special needs planning and veterans aid and attendance benefits. She is also a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys.

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