ResearchWire - Discoveries in Elder Law

Genie Tyburski is the Research Librarian for Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll, LLP and the Web Manager of The Virtual Chase: A Research Site for Legal Professionals.


Elder law issues arise in just about any field. Lawyers advising older clients, or their families, deal with health and insurance questions, financial matters, consumer fraud, domestic and labor issues, housing, and more. With such an array of topics, readers might expect a book summarizing valuable sources of information.

But books, and articles, focusing solely on resources suffer from the rapid pace of change in today’s world of electronic data. Having lasting value are the strategies researchers use to find information. This article discusses research techniques within the context of elder law issues. It ends with an annotated list of Web resources of potential use to senior law practitioners.

Let’s begin with this hypothetical research scenario:

The brother of an elderly psychiatric patient seeks advice about his sister's doctors' recommendation that she receive electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) treatment. The brother believes his sister will agree to ECT to avoid angering her doctors. He wants to understand the procedure and its potential for helping her.

One effective strategy encompasses initiating research at a government Web site on topic. Consider the information needed by the fictitious client above. What federal entity comes to mind? The National Institutes of Health? The National Library of Medicine? Researchers answering either of these organizations possess two outstanding starting points with which to uncover information about ECT.

To illustrate, let’s connect to the Web site of the National Institutes of Health. Half-way down the home page appears a link labeled, Health Information. Follow it to find a dozen or more health-related databases and other resources, including the exemplary National Library of Medicine site, MEDLINEplus.

MEDLINEplus opened during Fall 1998. As a research guide, it suggests Web, online, paper and other sources of health-related information.

To discover resources on electroconvulsive therapy, select Depression from the Health Topics menu, or search the terms, ECT or electroconvulsive therapy. Either method leads researchers to the National Mental Health Association’s fact sheet on Electroconvulsive Therapy.

Those also wanting medical articles should return to the MEDLINEplus topic, Depression. Select: "Search MEDLINE for recent articles about Depression - (therapy)." This automatically runs a PubMed query in MEDLINE for articles published during the past 90 days. To limit retrieval to articles on ECT, enclose the existing query –

depression [majr] OR depressive disorders [majr] AND (randomized controlled trial [PTYP] OR drug therapy [SH] OR therapeutic use [SH:NOEXP] OR random* [WORD] OR surgery [SH] OR therapy [SH] OR radiotherapy [SH] OR diet therapy [SH] OR rehabilitation[mh]) AND eng[la] AND human[mh]

– in parentheses and add, AND electroconvulsive therapy.

Medical research purists may cringe at this quick and dirty editing, but the technique yields eight relevant articles published during the past three months. One of them, appearing in a journal on geriatric psychiatry, pertains to persons over age 75.

Let’s apply a different strategy to this scenario:

A 73-year-old man lives alone in a home he owns. He's relatively healthy but requires help maintaining the home and his independence. In investigating options to finance the hiring of two caretakers, he learns about reverse mortgages. He would like advice about this type of financing.

Another research technique entails using a catalog site or index to find a good starting point. Two notable legal catalogs on the Web include FindLaw and CataLaw.

I selected CataLaw, but either site points researchers to potentially useful sources of information. From the Topics menu on the home page, select Elder Law. This leads to a number of likely starting points. Under the category, United States, follow the link for SeniorLaw. Then at SeniorLaw, either click on the link labeled, Elderlaw Resources and browse the list for information about reverse mortgages, or search the site using the terms reverse and mortgages. The engine understands the Boolean AND connector.

Either strategy finds two helpful resources: 1) The History of Reverse Mortgages by Financial Freedom Senior Funding Corporation and 2) Consumer Information on Reverse Mortgages by the National Center for Home Equity Conversion.

A third technique involves searching within the address line of a browser. Because of the state of searching technology on the Web, this strategy works best with unique or uncommon terms.

In the scenario above, let’s say that instead of looking into reverse mortgages, the 73-year-old man seeks advice about viatical settlements. Enter the phrase, viatical settlements, in the address line of newer versions of Netscape or Internet Explorer.

Using Netscape 4.5, I found Viatical & Senior Settlements by Welcom(e) Funds. The site discusses financial procedures, qualifying for viatical settlements, and tax issues. Moreover, it directs researchers to additional sites offering legal and financial information.

Not knowing Welcom(e) Funds, I appreciate the referrals and I want a second opinion. By browsing the list of legal and financial resources, I learn about the FTC publication, Viatical Settlements: A Guide for People with Terminal Illnesses. Unfortunately, the link provided contains an error causing the dreaded 404 message. When this happens, back out to the home page – in this case, http://www.ftc.gov/ -- and search or browse in order to find the recommended information.

Even though the FTC publication deals with viatical settlements for those with terminal illnesses, it defines this benefit, discusses financial options, and provides a list of organizations where researchers may obtain more information.

These three strategies – kicking off research from a government site on topic, locating a starting point via a catalog or index site, or searching rare terms within a browser’s address line – provide means by which to initiate Web research on virtually any subject. Keep in mind that most well-designed sites, with an eye toward objectivity, direct researchers to other resources offering similar information. Legal professionals should take advantage of this built-in browsing capability to balance their research and to add to their arsenal of resources.

Speaking of said arsenal of resources, below appears an annotated list of sources of information for elder law practitioners.

Administration on Aging Find mounds of substantive information including fact sheets, articles, reports, speeches, statistics and more. Recent additions include an update to the HHS poverty guidelines, information on Y2K issues for seniors, and a study on assisted living.
AARP Research The American Association of Retired Persons offers a number of reports, articles and statistics via this site. Topics include health and long-term care, social security, employment, housing, financial fraud, and more.
Choice in Dying This right-to-die organization offers much of possible interest – state-specific advance directive packages, information about recent state legislative activities and case law developments, articles, and more.
Code of Federal Regulations, Title 26 GPO Access offers Title 26, Internal Revenue, last revised 1 April 1998.
Draft Amendments to Uniform Probate Code, Article 5 -- Guardianship The National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws proposes amendments to Article 5 of the Uniform Probate Code.
Draft Amendment to Uniform Probate Code, Article 6 The National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws proposes amendments to Article 6 of the Uniform Probate Code.
Draft Amendments to the Uniform Trust Act The National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws proposes amendments and a draft policy statement to the Uniform Trust Act.
Health Care Financing Administration HCFA’s Web site targets both consumers and professional researchers. It provides data related to Medicare, Medicaid and child health. Information for legal professionals includes PRRB decisions, administrative rulings, advisory opinions, Medicare payment resources, program manuals, and more.
Internal Revenue Code Cornell LII offers Title 26, United States Code.
Medicare The Health Care Financing Administration offers this site devoted to Medicare. Find a number of publications on topics like choosing a nursing home, advance directives, hospice benefits, medical savings accounts, and more.
Nursing Home Compare This resource by the Health Care Financing Administration provides information about nursing homes in the United States. Search by home name or by jurisdiction. Data includes home name, address, and phone, ownership, number of beds, date of last inspection, and information about health deficiencies and requirements not met during the last inspection.
SeniorLaw David Goldfarb of the law firm, Goldfarb & Abrandt, contributes SeniorLaw, a site where professionals and consumers may discover information about elder law. The site features Medicare and Medicaid updates, articles, and links to estate planning resources.
Social Security Online The Social Security Administration offers rulings pertaining to old-age and survivors’ insurance benefits, the Social Security Handbook, international agreements, and rules and regulations.
Texas Elder Law Attorney Paul Premack offers his weekly San Antonio Express-News and monthly Austin Senior Advocate columns. Articles discuss many practical aspects from the viewpoint of Texas law.