Lawyers are trained to spot the issues. Elder law attorney Susan (Loob) Geffen ’85 used the skill to hone in on the fact America is heading into a crisis that is “not even on our radar.”
“We worry about nuclear bombs, our food supply, and if we will run out of energy,” Geffen said. She marvels that an issue of equal significance — aging — is not on the nation’s short list of crucial concerns.
“We live in an ageist society. It’s as if older adults aren’t worthy of anything. That’s why I want to fight for the elderly,” said Geffen, who has started “a grassroots movement across the country to change the future of what it is to be old.”
One of few in the country with a graduate degree in gerontology combined with a law degree that she uses to advocate for the elderly and disabled, Geffen is taking a pro-active stance in preparing people for the struggles and difficult decisions that will accompany the elder care crisis she knows is looming.
“The only chance we have is through education,” said Geffen, who teaches with statistics.
“Every seven seconds somebody turns 65 in our country. The largest growing population is that of 85 years and older. The second fastest growing demographic is 100 years and over.”
The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Administration on Aging reinforces Geffen’s numbers. The department reports that in 2010, persons 65 years or older totaled 40.4 million, which is an increase of 5.4 million since 2000. By 2030 there will be about 72.1 million older persons—more than twice the number in 2000. The agency also notes that people who reach age 65 now have an average life expectancy of an additional 18.8 years.
“We used to die much younger,” Geffen said, noting Americans still have a mental portrait of life ending around age 75. But medical advances that prolong the lifespan are only one reason the nation is entering the overwhelming realm of elder care.
Another is that the U.S. has morphed from an agrarian society. Families no longer stay united across generations, which complicates aging issues. Geffen extensively researched and documented this paradigm shift while writing her recent book on nursing homes.
The reality that decisions typically aren’t made or action taken until a loved one enters a crisis stage is yet another fact that compounds problems for the elderly, as does a “not me” mentality adopted by too many middle-aged adults who fail to envision the challenges they will face as senior citizens.
Geffen is on a mission to reverse the negative trend. She created a seminar titled “Raising UP Your Parents,” which has been attended by thousands of baby boomers and seniors alike. She has authored Susan’s Essential Book of Elder Care Forms and The Seven Triggers of Mental Health Decline in Seniors. This fall she released her third book: Take that Nursing Home and Shove It: Join the Revolution!
Her role as educator is extended through a bi-weekly e-newsletter, watchdog alerts on senior scams, The Elder Life Series on YouTube, and an Elder Life Radio Show that presents top experts in the aging industry. All are available through her website, where she lists her top picks on everything from Alzheimer’s care to wheelchairs. She blogs on issues that range from financial questions to long-term care options and how to prepare for the future.
Geffen also works as a consultant near her home in Redondo Beach, California, partnering with families who need her guidance as a geriatric care manager, an estate planner, or an advocate to secure benefits or protect assets. The cases she handles explain why she is adamant that a significant societal shift is needed.
“I worked with a 94-year-old woman who was down to her last $20,000. I had to tell her to give notice she was moving out because she could no longer afford her two-bedroom apartment and caregiver. She had lived there for 20 years. She told me she never expected she would live so long.”
Geffen was able to find a solution with that family by acting on what she preaches, which is to plan and prioritize. Her primary goal in all she does is to help people overcome what she calls “analysis paralysis.”
“We do care about older people, but I also think that we have brain freeze. We have so much information at a rapid pace all the time and are constantly juggling so much in the moment that we can’t think beyond to the next day,” she said. “We don’t step out and contemplate tomorrow, and we don’t deal with something until it’s a problem.”
She knows this from first-hand experience in her career, which gradually evolved from her days as an Illinois State undergraduate studying speech pathology and audiology. She chose the University in part because her uncle, Gerald Lambert ’64, is a graduate of the ISU program.
Realizing she needed a master’s degree to continue in the field, Geffen opted to enroll at Loyola Law School of Los Angeles. She completed her degree in 1989 and joined the faculty as an adjunct teaching elder law. Her goal at that time was to become an advocate for the disabled.
“I am wired to be very vociferous when it comes to people who have nobody else to fight for them,” said Geffen, who has worked as a lawyer for 22 years. With expertise in employment age discrimination and disability rights, she proved herself by taking on an international mail carrier that discriminated against an employee of 35 years who developed Parkinson’s. Geffen refused the firm’s settlement offer of $70,000, moving forward to trial where she secured a $1.4 million verdict.
The case sparked Geffen’s contemplation about the challenges that come with aging, which in turn resulted in her completing a master’s degree in gerontology from the University of Southern California. She took a break from the classroom and the courtroom to be a full-time mom.
When she returned to the workplace, Geffen fulfilled her passion to help others by blending her knowledge of geriatric needs with her law expertise.
The result has been her involvement in everything from hearings to secure restraining orders in elder abuse cases to mediating with families destroyed by arguments over what is best for a loved one.
Geffen has lived that heartache herself, as she and a sibling separated over disagreements that arose while caring for their mother during a battle with cancer that ended in her death. They have since reconciled, but Geffen knows of many who never speak again because of words and deeds during such a stressful time.
The painful scenario can be avoided if families become proactive, which is why Geffen is working to educate and empower. “I go out and make a plan for people,” she said, “because the end of our lives should be beautiful, joyful, and happy.”
For such an idyllic ending to unfold, however, Geffen emphasizes that each individual must anticipate their longevity and take responsibility for how their elder years will unfold.
“We live in a land of theory. People walk around saying things, but they don’t move their feet in a way that matches their words,” Geffen said. “They will say they don’t want to be a burden to their children, yet they don’t do anything to prevent that from happening.”
Too many individuals expect government programs will provide what is needed as they age. At the same time, most don’t even understand the basics of what aid is available, such as the difference between Medicare and Medicaid.
The majority do not put in place a power of attorney or articulate in writing their wishes for how they want to live out their later years. They do not downsize to build necessary savings, or secure long-term care insurance. The majority also overlook the most obvious and easily implemented step of a healthy lifestyle long before the senior years arrive.
“The best way to live a dignified existence is to take care of our bodies and our health,” she said. “Most paths to chronic health issues—diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, and even Alzheimer’s disease—and the need for skilled care emanate from smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, poor eating habits, and obesity.”
She has equal concern for the well-being of those responsible for an elderly loved one, noting that “the mortality and sickness rate amongst caregivers is very high.”
Action and awareness are the best prescription for avoiding myriad painful pitfalls that accompany aging, which is why Geffen remains convinced education is the most fundamental requirement to live well until death.
She cites a study done in 2011 by Metropolitan Life that reveals up to 70 percent of 65-year-olds will require long-term care, yet only 43 percent can identify the cost for assisted living, which is currently around $6,000 a month. Individuals who reach the age of 85 have a 50 percent risk of developing Alzheimer’s, yet few Americans have a clue of how they will pay for their medical care.
“Why are we not doing anything now? We are complacent,” Geffen said. “There is a pandemic of ignorance. The problems we are going to have if we don’t start paying attention to our future are vast, which is why I want to wake people up.”