Beth Norton, the founding attorney at Norton Health Law, is serving as this year’s team…
Some people are kid people. I’m an older person person. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike kids, but I absolutely love working with and being around people on the other end of the scale. I loved caring for them as a nurse, and I love serving and protecting them now as an elder law attorney.
When I was a cardiac nurse, most of my patients were elderly, and many had few, if any, visitors. When some family members did visit, they often did more talking than listening and oftentimes, they treated their parents or grandparents like children or made them feel irrelevant. This made me sad and sometimes a little mad, but it was a joy to be someone who took the time to listen to them and connect with them again. I liked being the person who reminded them that they and their feelings are not irrelevant but were very important to me.
My grandmother, Helen, or Grandma as we called her, talked to me about feeling irrelevant in the last years of her life, especially after she went blind. She was a wickedly intelligent lady and the wisest person I ever knew. Everyone who knew her respected the hell out of her, and she was the person most of us in the family went to for advice.
But in the end, for whatever reason, Grandma felt irrelevant, and it broke my heart. Luckily for her, she had family members who still loved spending time with her and listening to her. For example, my brother Andy spent hours with her learning about and recording the lesser-known details of her life, and my Aunt Annie, who was Grandma’s caregiver in the last few years of her life, considered it one of the greatest blessings of her life to be able to spend so much time talking and laughing with Grandma. But so many of my patients did not have that.
Beyond learning more about the importance of listening and compassion, nursing was the perfect training for the other aspects of a career in elder law. It obviously oriented me to the healthcare and other needs of older people, as well as the laws associated with those things, but it also instilled in me a comfort with end-of-life discussions. I learned quickly that although it may be easier and more comfortable to avoid these topics, it doesn’t help the person in the end and actually causes much more harm than good. I learned the importance of empowering people by presenting them with all the decisions they have the power to make and to design the end of their lives. I get to do that now as an elder law attorney, as well, and it’s one of the things I love most about the job.
I’m so glad that my Grandma was able to choose how she wanted to spend her final days. I was with her when she passed away peacefully at home, and it was one of the greatest honors of my life to be one of the people who held her hand and looked into her eyes in that moment. As strange as it sounds, I enjoyed and was just as honored to be with my patients when they died in the hospital. If I was the only one with them in that moment, as I often was, I made sure that the last pair of eyes they looked into were loving ones.
As an attorney, I’m not ordinarily with my clients now when they pass away. Instead, I’m the one who causes them to consider and discuss, often for the first time, what the end of their life may look like. And I’m at least one of the people who empowers them to make as many choices as possible about what they want the end of their life to be like. It’s not always easy to get them to fully engage in these discussions, but by patiently listening and meeting them where they are, I always get them there and they’re always grateful they had the opportunity.
I had no idea when I became a nurse that it would eventually lead to a legal career, much less a career in elder law, but I’m so glad it did. I love being an elder law attorney because I get to spend time with and empower wonderful people every day. My staff and I get to know our clients so well, we come to think of them like family. What job could be better than that?