Fri11282014

Senior Lifestyles

Local elder-law attorney helps with end-of-life issues

Even when attorney Doris Hawks is hard at work, you might not find her in her office. That's because she does so much of her work outside it. She makes house calls, comes to people's bedsides in hospitals or nursing homes, and appears in court on behalf of her senior clients.

Doris Hawks, 57, grew up in Los Altos. She has a life mission to promote access to health care. She has been working at this mission for many years and in many ways, including as a college professor of dental hygiene and a malpractice lawyer. She has earned multiple graduate degrees, but only since 1994, when she began working in elder law, has she felt that she is succeeding in her mission.

Elder law focuses on long life and end-of-life issues. The most obvious and simple tasks of elder law attorneys are drawing up wills and trusts. Elder-law attorneys also guide estates through probate and administer trusts. Their more complex and important tasks involve protecting clients' rights and helping them make decisions about health care, financial management, and care management.

"Only about 25 percent of people have done the planning needed for the end of their lives," said Hawks. "Most calls I get are crisis management, to do what's possible when nothing's been prepared. That includes documents drawn up on a deathbed."

Hawks is often called in by a family taken by surprise. "A typical case would be the person whose mother has had a stroke. She's getting discharged from the hospital next week, and the person has no idea how to pay for the nursing home care she's going to need. I hear questions like, 'Do we have to sell the house?'"

Even when it's not an emergency, families need to talk to Hawks about more than legal questions. "Sometimes seniors call me and say, 'I want to talk over my plans with my children, but they're uncomfortable,'" said Hawks. "Or I hear from the children, 'I want Mom to make a plan, but I don't want to seem grasping or disrespectful.' Sometimes both feelings are happening!"

Hawks also protects her clients from elder abuse, which can be physiological, psychological, or financial. And because she cares so much about elders' rights, Hawks is a public volunteer on the El Camino Hospital ethics committee.

"Planning for the end of their lives is the greatest gift people can give their children," said Hawks. "If I could say one thing to seniors, it would be this: Make sure you've done the planning to allow people to help you in the way you want to be helped.

"I feel privileged to be involved with families as they make decisions about caring for their elders," said Hawks. "It's really intimate."

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