Law Tips: Elder Law: A Rock Steady Approach to Clients Challenged by Progressive Disease

Your approach to a client with age or disability challenges is crucial to their peace of mind. During ICLEF’s recent Elder Law Institute this subject received a unique type of attention. Attendees learned of Indiana’s Rock Steady Boxing program where people fight their disease with vigor. Our expert Elder Law faculty member, Scott Severns, offers candid impressions of his encounter with The Rock Steady Approach and his Top Three Aha’s:

As Elder Law Attorneys, we help our clients face a variety of challenges from disability and aging. We devise sophisticated trusts and draft other documents to enable family members to legally accomplish the important goals of and for the person in need of care. We guide clients through baffling Medicaid law and an even more baffling bureaucracy.

The way that we approach our work with a client and family can have major impact on the choices they make. When we are at our best, we strengthen the ability of the individual and family care givers to meet the challenges successfully together, preserving the values most dear to them.

Every once-in-a-while, we encounter something that startles us to a new understanding of effective help. For me, the Rock Steady Boxing program for people with Parkinson’s Disease has been such a startling–and inspiring–encounter.

Here are some questions to ask yourself as you watch the video and hear the description of this program (below). I will follow up with Severns’ Top Three Aha’s from the Rock Steady Approach.

  • Is this just another form of therapy or exercise?   What’s different about it?
  • What is the primary focus of the coaches?
  • At Rock Steady, boxers work out with others who are engaged in the same battle. How important is the “common cause?”
  • What most surprised you about Rock Steady?
  • What client(s) in your case load might benefit from a program like Rock Steady?
  • Are there aspects to the Rock Steady approach that could improve the way we counsel, represent, strategize with our clients?

Joyce B. Johnson, Executive Director, Rock Steady Boxing, offers this video with an insightful message:
Purdue Parkinson’s Disease Research and Rock Steady Gym

Severns’ Top Three Aha’s from the Rock Steady approach:
Boxers engage with their disease as a challenge, not a death sentence. By coming together with others facing similar challenge to fight back, boxers overcome isolation and depression. No boxer is written off or permitted to give up. They collaborate; they don’t commiserate.

How do we as lawyers encourage clients to engage rather than to become passive or succumb? I’m aware that I am tempted to be the “man with the answers” or even a rescuer. My most rewarding client relationships, however, are those where I’m in the client’s corner as the client meets hers or his challenge.

I have often witnessed the spiral toward isolation and depression that often accompanies a chronic degenerative disease, so I listen for what relationships and activities are and have been most meaningful in the client’s life. I can then explore how those can be maintained, enhanced or re-cast in a new setting. Staying independent and alone at home is not the ultimate goal for everyone and certainly entry to a facility that treats residents as problems is not the right alternative, either. I must be aware of the trajectory that Medicaid planning, for instance, creates. I must help family care givers to become effective advocates when facility practices or staff hit below the belt.

Boxers are “boxers,” not “Parkinson’s victims.” Family members and friends are “corner-men” rather than guardians, spokespersons or even care givers.

In counseling, what words do I use to refer to and describe my client? My client’s corner-men? Can the documents I draft be better-worded to enhance self-image of the client and the “better angels” of family members’ character?

Coaches are encouragers, accommodating each boxer’s limitations while focusing on their strengths. Coaches help each boxer discover and enhance capacities that the boxer may not have even known s/he had.

When we meet with clients with diminished capacity, how well do we accommodate limitations without emphasizing them, and help the client recognize and build upon what is strong in him/her? Even more challenging, we’ve all had experiences where family members’ manner of speaking treats the client with mental or physical impairment as a problem, rather than a person with deep values and strengths. I have to remind myself at times not to talk over a client with dementia, to ask questions scaled to the client’s capacity-to involve the client in decisions to the extent possible. Sometimes I simply keep my eyes focused on the client and ignore the interruption of a family-member who seeks to take over the conversation from the client.

By modeling deference and true concern for the views of the client with an impairment, we can sometimes help everyone discover the right relationship to meet their challenges together.


I appreciate the support of Law Tips from Scott Severns and Joyce Johnson. Their Rock Steady Approach is definitely inspirational. You may hear their CLE presentation by registering for the Elder Law Institute at your convenience through ICLEF’s On Demand programming. Also available is our 2015 Advanced Elder Law Seminar,  a Masters Series Seminar, August 14-15 at the Canyon Inn at McCormick’s Creek State Park in beautiful southern Indiana.


About our Law Tips faculty participants:
Scott R. Severns, Partner, Severns Associates, P.C., Indianapolis
Known by many in Indiana as the “Father of Elder Law,” Scott Severns is a founding member and Past President of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. His professional career has focused on legal and health care issues that confront older adults and people with disabilities. A Past President of the National Citizens’ Coalition for Nursing Home Reform and a former policy analyst for United Senior Action, he has successfully lobbied for nursing home reform laws and was a primary architect of Indiana’s home health care legislation known as the CHOICE program. He is a regular faculty member for the Indiana Continuing Legal Education Forum, the American Bar Association, and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys.

Joyce B. Johnson, Executive Director, Rock Steady Boxing, Indianapolis
Joyce Johnson leads the RSB team as its Executive Director. She has more than 30 years experience managing organizational change and growth. Johnson was Vice-President of the Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation. She is the editor of “Key Things Parents Should Know about Education in Indiana,” published in 2004.

About our Law Tips blogger:
Nancy Hurley has long-standing connections with Indiana lawyers. She was formerly a member of the ISBA and IBF staffs for over 30 years. Nancy’s latest lifestyle venture is with ICLEF. We are utilizing her exceptional writing and interviewing skills while exploring how her Indiana-lawyer background fits with ICLEF’s needs. When she isn’t ferreting out new topics for Law Tips, her work can be found in our Speaker Spotlight blogs, postings on the ICLEF Facebook and Twitter pages, and other places her legal experience lends itself.

Thank you for reading Law Tips. You may subscribe to this weekly blog through the RSS link at the top of this page.  Also, you are encouraged to comment below or email Nancy. She welcomes your input as she continues to sift through the treasure trove of knowledge of our CLE faculty to share with you.

ICLEF • Indiana Continuing Legal Education Forum, Indianapolis, IN

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