Has Something Gone Wrong with Elder Law?

For Marty Fogarty, elder law is personal.

Marty is the founder of The Heartland Law Firm, a Life Care Planning Law Firm in Glenview, Illinois. Marty knows firsthand how taxing the elder care journey can be. Like millions of other older adults suffering from dementia and “elder frailty,” Marty’s father fell through the cracks of an impersonal and fragmented elder care system, a system which often disregards the frail elder’s personal dignity.

The experience was difficult. But it taught Marty a valuable lesson. “It became very clear to me that attempting to deliver elder law services without considering the older person’s care needs was a broken solution,” says Marty. “If the experience was this hard for me, someone who understands the law, I can’t even imagine how bad it must be for everyone else.”

After Marty’s father died in 2015, Marty viewed the elder care experience with fresh eyes. “There are millions of people with aging (but still healthy) parents who have no idea that they're about have an experience that will be brutal on every level,” he says. “When a parent gets sick, it’s like emotional dynamite that detonates, sending shock waves through the entire family system. I could not unsee just how broken the system is. And I remember thinking, ‘This is how surgery must have been during the Civil War. It had to be done, but it was painful and horrible.’”

Marty believes that change is needed. That’s one of the reasons he added Life Care Planning to his firm’s service roster. But even as the number of Life Care Planning Law Firms is growing and more elder law attorneys are paying attention to the care needs of their elderly clients, Marty sees other forces that are pulling the profession in the opposite direction. “It seems like every attorney who has a subscription to will and trust software is claiming to be an elder law attorney,” Marty explains. “In my opinion, this represents a dehumanizing drift toward making elder law even more transactional than it already is.”

Supporting people in non-legal ways is what makes the legal services delivered by an elder law firm most valuable. That’s one of the reasons Marty believes that Life Care Planning, which includes a team of non-legal professionals who guide, support, and advocate for the elder, is such a powerful approach. 

The elder care journey is uncharted territory for most people. The nation’s current health care system, designed for acute care situations, has little to offer to people with chronic conditions like dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. There’s no system to follow. “If you break your arm, there’s a single, universally-accepted protocol for handling that,” says Marty. “You go to the emergency room, have them splint you up, and then you're fine. If you say, ‘My dad has dementia. What do I do?’, it’s a different ballgame. A traditional elder law attorney may say, ‘Put the money in the trust.’ The senior advisor may say, ‘Buy an annuity.’ The home care person may say, ‘Hire us and we'll come and take care of him at home.’ There’s no clear path to follow.”

Aging, long-term illness, and disability create enough challenges for families. Traditional elder law shouldn’t be one of them. That’s why elder law should be about more than just the law. It needs to be about care and solving the complete problem first – with the law being a component of that problem. And that’s what Life Care Planning Law Firms do best.