The Hired Daughters
Valerie Geiger and Cary Cucinelli navigate elder law during the pandemic
Published in 2020 Virginia Super Lawyers magazine on October 14, 2020
Valerie Geiger and Cary Cucinelli can attest that being an elder law attorney in non-pandemic times is difficult enough.
There’s the emotional impact of having a client for years, for example, who one day lights up upon your arrival at the nursing facility where she lives, to the next time, being aggressive and hitting you with teddy bears.
“That client relationship is one that’s so important to me, as she’s been with me since 2013,” says Geiger. “And every time I would go see her, the light continued to diminish. She’s started to not remember me. It’s going to be hard to say bye to her one day.”
But in the past six months Geiger and Cucinelli, who together head the Virginia-based estate planning and elder law boutique Cucinelli Geiger, have had to deal with things they’ve never imagined.
“I never thought we’d be thinking about hydroxychloroquine as much as we have,” Cucinelli says. “One of my clients who was diagnosed with COVID, we had to ask: ‘Do we trust this drug? How much testing do we have to do before administering it?’ For some of our clients, who have no family, we are the ones making those decisions. It’s not always easy.”
Of course, their client population has been hit the hardest by the pandemic, and its manifested itself in many ways for the two lawyers. “It’s been a real challenge, because many of our clients are in facilities or in home-care receiving help from an aide, so trying to FaceTime and video conference instead of advocating in person has been difficult,” says Geiger.
So they’ve had to get creative. “The estate planning side of our shop has increased considerably,” Geiger says. Which means the duo was faced with lots of wills, powers of attorney, health care directives, trusts and deeds to be signed. So they opened up a drive-by clinic in the law firm parking lot.
“We offered it the first day, and sign-ups filled up immediately,” Geiger says. “People would pull up, and we offered them their documents ready to go on sanitized clipboards, with individual-packaged pens for signing.”
The clinic, one of the first in Northern Virginia, was appreciated by clients, and the lawyers, too, who were able to have some good-old human interaction. “In as safe a manner as we could do so,” Geiger says. “It was more popular than I ever thought it’d be.”
From their vantage point, one of the most difficult things to triage since COVID was the myriad ways individual health facilities responded to the pandemic.
“It was really interesting to see how differently they all responded, and which ones communicated and which ones didn’t,” Geiger says. “Still, many facilities are not permitting in person visits. We have to rely on the representations of the nurses and aides for progress reports rather than our own eyes and ears. Many of the individuals we are managing have lost weight or declined in cognition because during COVID, they had to be isolated. It has been really hard on them.”
As such, the lawyers have noticed a trend among the families they support—more people choosing to take an individual out of nursing homes to minimize the risk of COVID exposure. “But people are realizing that it is difficult to manage someone at home without outside support,” Geiger notes.
For those elderly clients at home without family around and who Geiger or Cucinelli can’t visit, there’s the added threat of online scams that might try to take advantage of that lack of support network.
“For example, a particular web site is pedaling some DIY legal work that looks legit, but then I had a client who utilized it come to me and say, ‘I’ve got my power of attorney done.’ And I’m looking at it and it’s all California language, so it’s not helping us in Virginia. This pandemic has led to that kind of online work, and I think we’ll be undoing it for the next few years.”
“We’re often the hired daughters,” Cucinelli says. “And that’s something we take very seriously.”