What My Elder Law Clients Have Taught Me About Love 

Feb 14, 2023
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By: Dana Walsh Sivak, Esq.

Working in elder law for the past twelve years has allowed me to see, firsthand, the depths to which a person can devote themselves to their spouse or partner. Many of my senior clients are fortunate enough to have long-lasting relationships, often marriages, that have spanned decades. These relationships have almost always endured many of life’s “highs” and “lows” and weathered these storms, in part, because of the partnership and support the individuals found in their spouse or partner.   

I often wonder, when I see my elderly clients carrying out these promises to “love and cherish” their spouse, “for richer or poorer,” “in sickness and in health,” how many of them could have imagined when they took their marriage vows what that commitment would look like, fifty years down the line? How often do young couples, embarking on a relationship meant to last a lifetime, and the building of a family, really think about what a marriage looks like when these promises are tested?  

One of the most significant challenges that can happen in a marriage is when one partner, or spouse, suffers a serious illness. It is sometimes in these moments that clients come to me, trepidatious about what the future now looks like for them, and how they can prepare for the next weeks, months, and years. For many, in an instant, they went from being an active partner, enjoying the golden years of life, to a round-the-clock caregiver.  As far as chronic illnesses go, Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia are particularly cruel, and when such a diagnosis is involved, the challenge is exponentially more difficult for the caregiver-spouse, who now must become a caregiver to someone who, as the condition progresses, may not even recognize them anymore.  

The personal stories my clients have shared with me over the years have stayed with me, and these experiences have impacted how I conduct myself in representing clients. I remember, from very early in my career, one particular client, a sweet old man who reminded me a lot of my own grandfather, whose wife was suffering from dementia. His wife’s condition had rapidly deteriorated, and she was now living in a nursing home.  His love for his wife was so apparent in every communication we shared.  We were in the midst of appealing a denial of Medicaid benefits for his wife, and one day, when he stopped by the office to drop off some documents, he shared that it was his and his wife’s 50th wedding anniversary. He told me, with tears in his eyes, that he’d just come from the nursing home where he visited his wife, and she didn’t remember who he was.  

I offered him as many kind, consoling words as I could muster before he left, and then I made it to the kitchen before I burst into tears. I needed a few minutes to collect myself before I returned to my desk and continued working. We were successful in overturning the Medicaid denial, thankfully, and it was such a  relief to him knowing that his wife’s needs would be met, and he would not face financial ruin in the process.  He was so appreciative of the hard work that went into achieving this outcome, and I always asked about how he and his wife were doing each time we spoke. He continued to visit his wife every day, and even if she couldn’t remember him, he treasured every visit he had with her.  Whenever he spoke of her, you could see the joy that seeing her still brought to his eyes, as though he’d just returned from their first date. I remember thinking – we should all be so lucky, to have someone who loves us this much.    

I was invited into another client’s home recently, where, again, I found a husband dutifully caring for and loving his wife as she suffers from advanced dementia. Her husband told me how vibrant his wife’s lifestyle was before her diagnosis, and how drastically things had changed in the couple of years since then. He shared that, every night, they watch “Everybody Loves Raymond” together, because it’s her favorite show, but that he has to be careful to change the channel when the subject matter delves into a storyline involving dementia or the changes that come with aging, as this is a trigger for her. When I spoke to her, she couldn’t really understand what I was asking her, and her cognitive impairment was very apparent. She said one thing that was very clear, however, when I asked her if she was happy in her home, and if she wanted to stay there with her husband – she responded, clear as day “yes,” and then she said, “we have a good thing going here,” pointing to her husband. I understood what she was trying to tell me. Even if she couldn’t remember much, or even necessarily identify who he was, she knew deep down that she was safe, loved, and well cared for, and that it was because of him.   

One might expect that these clients would spend our meetings, at least in part, lamenting how their lives have changed, the unfairness of it all, and how they never thought things would be this way.  But that is not why they come to me, and it’s not what they say when they sit in my office. Most times, their primary concern is: what can I do to make sure that, if something were to happen to me, my wife is cared for? How do I make sure that someone will be able to do the things that I’m doing for her right now?  It’s never about themselves. It’s always about the person they love, and what they can do to make their life better.

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My clients have taught me that, even in the worst of times, and the most challenging experiences of our lives, it is a pure and unselfish love that carries us through. When my clients cannot find support any longer from the one they’ve spent their life with – their confidante, their childhood sweetheart, the love of their life, because of their illness – that is when I see their family members step in. The love that couple has poured into their children, and grandchildren, leads their family members to fill in the gaps, and be there for their parent or loved one in their moments of need. It’s nieces and nephews who promise their uncle that, if something happens to him, they will be there to make sure their aunt is cared for. It’s a daughter-in-law showing up with a home-cooked meal at dinner time for her father-in-law whose wife is in a rehabilitation facility. It’s a grandson who testifies before a judge with tears in his eyes about how much he loves his grandfather, and wants to be his guardian, to make sure that he’s protected and taken care of for the rest of his life.     

I’ve learned that we can’t ever know what challenges are coming down the road, but the love I’ve seen my elderly and aging clients share, and receive, has given me such hope for the future. And to my elder law clients, and their loving families: the daily sacrifices and difficulties you endure, in the name of love, and the million little ways in which you show how much you love your spouse, or partner, or family member, each day do not go unnoticed. We see you; we notice. They make a difference, even if your loved one cannot tell you that.

My wish, this Valentine’s Day, is that you feel this love you put out into the universe returned to you ten-fold; that you find comfort in knowing that you are seen, and appreciated; and that we may all be so lucky as to have someone love and support us when we need it most. Love is truly universal. It transcends illness, impairment, distance and time. Even when love is all you can give to the person you care for – it is always enough.  

DISCLAIMER: This summary is not legal advice and does not create any attorney-client relationship.  This summary does not provide a definitive legal opinion for any factual situation. Before the firm can provide legal advice or opinion to any person or entity, the specific facts at issue must be reviewed by the firm.  Before an attorney-client relationship is formed, the firm must have a signed engagement letter with a client setting forth the Firm’s scope and terms of representation. The information contained herein is based upon the law at the time of publication.

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