Sometimes the most successful career path is one inspired by a personal crusade. This was definitely the case for instructor Barbara West and her class, Planning Matters Workshop. After starting her private law practice in a one-room office in Kent, WA, West figured her focus would primarily consist of business transitions and related tax planning. “(W)hat came through my door were people needing advice about helping their elderly parents, their disabled adult siblings and their ailing spouses,” she says. “I felt an affinity for what lawyers call ‘elder law’—working with people who have diminishing capacity and need to designate decision-makers and draw up wills. In fairly short order, I had switched my focus to estate planning, guardianship and probate.”
Next thing she knew, the concerns of West’s profession merged with those of her personal life. “My mother had surgery to remove a brain tumor in 2009 and she never fully recovered,” West recalls. “My parents made the decision to relocate to an active senior retirement community in 2010 because my father believed they were not truly safe any longer in their home. When my mother went into hospice and was dying at home, I became her daily caretaker. My father was also critically ill at the time and in the hospital. I was one person trying to meet their needs. What made that possible was that they were living in a community where many of their basic needs were met.”
West could not imagine a layperson navigating the elder care labyrinth without some kind of professional guidance. After her mother died, West and her father took a close look at the dearth of resources for caregivers and began forming a plan. “I mentioned to my father that so many of my clients regard senior residential communities with horror. ‘I would never go to one of those places,’ they would say to me. However, in my experience, ‘those’ places are lifesavers,” she says. “We decided that there are ‘senior myths’ that abound and influence the perceptions seniors have. That was the place where we started—trying to figure out what the senior ‘myths’ are and how to combat them.”
That discussion West had with her father, Stephen F. Adler resulted in their co-authoring When I Need Your Help, I’ll Let You Know and Other Senior Myths That Can Lead to Disaster in addition to establishing her non-profit corporation, Planning Matters. West says building the organization has been incredibly fulfilling both personally and professionally. “I have had amazing good fortune in my life,” she says. “I grew up in a loving, secure family with two parents who encouraged me and gave me access to literature, art and music and who were able to send me to college. I have worked for 30 years as a lawyer in private practice charging private pay rates. Now it is my turn to give back. I would like to bring Planning Matters workshops to every church, mosque and synagogue, hospital, fire station and school where there are people who need to do this important work. The barrier between legal work and the people who need services is money. As an attorney in private practice, I charge $400 an hour. As a single mother of two children, I would never have been able to use my own services. My goal in Planning Matters is to make sure that this important work is affordable, locate the people who need to do this work, and facilitate completion of their planning.”
Life planning is particularly challenging for seniors and encouraging them to be proactive about their future is often difficult. West has some pointers for identifying those challenges early. “There are many reasons for failing to be proactive, and we discuss these in our book,” she says. “People tend to procrastinate when they can’t make a decision. One reason to put off planning is when you aren’t sure who to name as a decision-maker or are afraid that the person you name will generate controversy. Fear of the unknown is also a factor: ‘How much will this process cost?’, ‘How long will it take?’ There may also be long-standing issues in the family. For example, a loan made long ago to a child left unpaid. Preparing a will makes it necessary to deal with that situation. Another factor that always seems to be at play is the idea that one can do nothing and defer making a decision. The reality of waiting, however, is that you may miss the opportunity to act.”
For West, leading Planning Matters Workshop is a dream fulfilled. “I believe that the greatest joy in life comes from our ability to help others,” she says. “I have spent the last 3 decades learning from my clients and their life stories. I enjoy sharing what I have learned – negative and positive – and helping others put together their estate documents so that they can feel secure. My enjoyment comes from knowing that others have completed their estate work and understand the plans in place, and are now ‘deputized’ to go out and spread the word.”
West’s main goal for Planning Manners Workshop is to answer every student’s legal questions about estate planning. “Afterwards, I want everyone to complete (sign and date) their documents so that they can be witnessed, notarized and fully effective,” she says. “I do not prepare wills in the workshop, so every student who wants a referral can get a name of a lawyer who can assist with that remaining piece of the planning. Most of all, I want every student to understand that by doing this work, they have given their families the gift of security in an uncertain world.”
Learn more about Planning Matters Workshop.