No Good Deed...

It's amazing how one situation, one misplaced word or one cross look can effect even the most hardened professional. This is especially true for those who work with people -- be it police, healthcare workers or attorneys. Others tell you to roll with the punches and yet, when you are being punched and you are rolling, it still hurts.

I say this because of a conversation I had with a colleague this week, which I will discuss a bit later.

But first, allow me to start out this blog entry with a poem;

There was a man in our town who had King Midas’ touch; He gave away his millions to the colleges and such; And people cried: “The hypocrite! He ought to understand The ones who really need him are the children of this land!”

When Andrew Croesus built a home for children who were sick, The people said they rather thought he did it as a trick, And writers said: “He thinks about the drooping girls and boys, But what about conditions with the men whom he employs?”

There was a man in our town who said that he would share His profits with his laborers, for that was only fair, And people said: “Oh, isn’t he the shrewd and foxy gent? It cost him next to nothing for that free advertisement!”

There was a man in our town who had the perfect plan To do away with poverty and other ills of man, But he feared the public jeering, and the folks who would defame him, So he never told the plan he had, and I can hardly blame him.

This work, in response to the old idiom “No good deed goes unpunished”, was written by a gentleman named Franklin Pierce Adams, an American columnist, well known by his initials F.P.A. and best known for his newspaper column, "The Conning Tower", as well as his appearances as a regular panelist on the radio program, Information Please.

So now let me explain the conversation I had with a colleague which I alluded to earlier. He was upset over the outcome of a case which, despite going above and beyond all ethical expectations and approaching the situation with compassion and care, he felt he had been through a war.

“There’s no winning”, he stated, “when you make one person happy, you upset another. Sometimes I wonder why I do this work!”

I could certainly identify with this feeling with one exception – never once have I ever questioned the reason I choose the specialty of elder law.

Over the years, I have faced many heart-wrenching situations and had to make decisions based on the information available and the well-being of a vulnerable senior. In the overwhelming majority of these cases the family members have been supportive and thankful for the work our firm has done and occasionally, the “no good deed goes unpunished” thought does briefly enter my head but what helps erase this is understanding why such issues occur.

In his book, "Blood and Money: Why Families Fight Over Inheritance and What to Do About It", Michigan elder law attorney P. Mark Accentra explored why families fight and appear unappreciative of the work done by attorneys, healthcare workers and doctors.

He stated “what appears as greed and pettiness are really symptoms of survivors’ struggle to feel loved and important. The fight for money and things – Dad’s Watch, Mom’s wedding ring – is not about the object or the money itself, but about what they symbolize: importance, love, security, self-esteem, connectedness and immortality.”

Imagine a family living on the other side of the country when grandmother can no longer care for herself on the opposite coast. While they are busy raising their children, working to keep food on the table and saving for college funds someone else, three thousand miles away, is providing care and oversight for a beloved family member.

Situations like this often leads to anxiety (what am I supposed to do? I should be helping but I can’t), resentments (who are these people to step in? They can’t take care of her like I do!), guilt (I hope they are treating her right. Am I a failure for not stepping in? Why didn’t we just stay in the state!) and eventually depression and grief. These feelings often result in displaced anger where the caregivers and other professionals are blamed and viewed as villains.

Attorney Accentra also points out, “When a loved one is sick and dying, many of the dynamics that cause families to fight are enhanced. The competition and conflict in taking care of mom or dad and the psychological sense of self during that time can create a great deal of discontent. In addition, if information is not shared amongst all siblings during the disability process a heightened sense of exclusion can occur.”

What can happen in such familial dynamics is that the family unit itself is open to being exploited by people and organizations who have an agenda aimed at advancing their own needs usually at the expense of a vulnerable family. Instead of dealing with the raw emotions of the decisions that need to be made for the senior, someone outside of the situation throws fuel on the fire resulting in a tragedy for all concerned.

Certainly, advanced planning can mitigate such situations. Talking before a crisis is best and estate planning with all family members having intimate knowledge of that plan can certainly avoid added stress at a time when emotions run high. It is also important to engage a third-party, whether it be an elder law attorney, a social worker or an elder case manager to discuss what is going on. In situations like this, there is no right or wrong way to feel as each person is unique and every case is different.

As for my colleague who bemoaned the stresses of working with the elderly, I chalk this up to a bad day. As for me, there is nothing else I would rather do and no other group of people I would rather help.

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