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January 30, 2022

Looking Forward as the New Director of The Commission on Law and Aging

by David Godfrey

The full PDF in which this article appears can be found in Bifocal Vol. 43, Issue 3.


My name is David Godfrey, and it is an honor to be asked to serve as the next director of the American Bar Association Commission on Law and Aging.

I am only the third director in the Commissions’ 42-year history. The Commission benefitted from strong founders. The strength of the Commission today is testament to the work of Nancy Coleman and Charlie Sabatino the first and second directors, and dedicated staff.   The Commission is a national leader “in strengthening and securing the legal rights, dignity, autonomy, quality of life and quality of care of older adults. The Commission accomplishes its work through research, policy development, advocacy, education, training and through assistance to lawyers, bar associations and others working on aging issues.” I was fortunate to join the Commission and be mentored by colleagues who had decades of experience at the Commission. Our work draws on our legacy every day. Having had the experience of working with giants in the field for 13 years, I find myself as the bridge between the legacy and new voices and new ideas that will carry the commission into the future. 

I am old enough to qualify for services under the Older Americans Act and eligibility for Medicare is in my foreseeable future. I started as a family caregiver when I was in high school, and I have been working exclusively in aging for over 22 years. The world that I am aging in, is vastly different than the world my parents aged into in the 1980s, and my parent’s experience was different than the world of my grandparents in the 1960s.  Laws and essential benefits programs have changed, our understanding of aging, cognitive impairment, human rights, abuse, and guardianship have evolved and continue to evolve. And as we move forward, our work must continue to evolve.  Our legacy helps us understand where we came from and our current work moves us forward into the future.

What Shapes Our Future?

I am still getting my mind around our budget, but I can say that the vast majority of what we do, is funded by grants, contracts, consulting agreements, and donors.  Our work is driven by the core values of the ABA and funding we are able to secure. We are open to being a part of new funded projects that connect to or expand with our areas of expertise. If you are looking for a strategic partner or outside expertise on a project, email us.  If you find value in the work that we do, you can support it by contributing to the Commission on Law and Aging through the ABA Fund for Justice and Education, for information click here. Funding shapes our future and I promise you will hear me ask regularly.   

Ongoing and Evolving Work

  • The Commission on Law and Aging is a 15-member interdisciplinary group, appointed by the ABA President, that work with staff to guide programs and policies.  Commissioners are a tremendous resource bringing extensive experience, knowledge, connections and influence to the work of the Commission.  My hope is to expand the involvement of our commissioners in the programs and publications that we produce.
  • Our E-Journal BIFOCAL will continue.  It is our most effective tool to share knowledge. I have started a regular column on elder abuse and will seek to create additional regular feature columns. We are always looking for quality content for BIFOCAL.  One of the ways I connected with the Commission before I came to work here, was writing for BIFOCAL.  Let us know if you would like to contribute to BIFOCAL. 
  • The National Aging and Law Conference will continue, we are currently working on plans for a virtual program November 9-11, 2022.  I have a long history with NALC that stretches back before joining the staff of the Commission.  I am working with my colleagues to transition leadership of NALC to the next generation.
  • Email discussion/distribution lists will continue.  To a lot of our readers, I am the person who posts things on Elderbar, our email list for professionals in law and aging.  Elderbar will continue, likely with changes in how it is managed and curated.  We have other email dissemination / discussion lists, Law and Aging Networking is limited to ABA Members and Staff that are working on issues in aging and ties in with a quarterly call.  We have a dedicated list for the WINGS guardianship reform projects. We have had other lists and may create new ones in the future.
  • We will continue to share information on social media such as Facebook and Twitter.
  • We will continue to do research, writing, advocacy and creating policy on abuse, guardianship reform and replacement, supporting decision making, the intersection of dementia and the law, capacity, advance planning, and access to benefits and services.
  • ABACLE Member Benefit CLE programs.  One of the premier benefits of ABA Membership is access to our member benefit CLE programs.  We will continue to create, produce, or present programs for this incredible member benefit program. 
  • We will continue to provide speakers and trainers in our areas of expertise.  Staff present as many as 100 webinars, conference presentations, workshops and specialized trainings per year.  This is a core part of our fulfilling the ABA core goals of improving the profession and expanding the rule of law.
  • We will remain active in supporting development of ABA Policy on issues in aging.  The ABA relies on policy to guide the work of governmental affairs and media affairs. Our commissioners and staff work to craft policy that support protection and enhancements on issues that are important to adults as we age.   
  • We will continue to provide technical assistance to professionals in law and aging.  Every week we receive emails or phone calls from professionals is law and aging working on a wide spectrum of issues asking for ideas, information, connections, or inspiration. Some of this is funded by projects, some of it leads to funded collaborations. It is a part of our core role of working to improve the legal rights, dignity, autonomy, quality of life and quality of care of older adults.
  • We will continue to collaborate with ABA Sections, Divisions, and other entities.  We are a regular contributor to Senior Lawyers Division programs and publications; we are working with Health Law to develop a pro-bono initiative. We collaborate with a large number of other ABA entities.If I start listing them, I will leave someone out and run out of space.  One of the real strengths of the ABA is the breadth of expertise that is available to us with an email or a phone call.  We host a quarterly law and aging networking call for ABA Members and Staff to talk about programs, publications, and policy. 
  • Three major outside funded projects will dominate our work in 2022. We continue to be a sub-contractor on the National Center on Law and Elder rights, producing training, resources, and providing technical assistance through that project to professionals in law and aging across the country.  We are working with a state court system on a project to disrupt the health care to guardianship pipeline and to pilot the use of mediation to resolve disputes that might otherwise result in a guardianship filing.  We have a consulting agreement with a national advocacy organization to review proposed legislation.  That project keeps us on top of legislation across the country on guardianship, elder abuse and health care decision making.  We have several smaller consulting contracts, all of which are important and help us to keep our eyes on the future.  We are wrapping up a research project funded by the Retirement Research Foundation on the interaction of persons with dementia in the criminal justice system and should issue a report in the next few weeks.  

Expanding and Emerging Issues

  • Advocacy to reform or replace guardianship of adults has never been stronger.  Much of this is driven by media reports on the horrors of abuse and exploitation by guardians, but at a deeper level there is an expanded recognition of the incredible infringement on legal rights, human rights, and dignity of adults when a guardian is appointed. In a variety of forms, and under a broad spectrum of topics we see our advocacy in this area expanding.
  • We are looking for funding to create a lawyers handbook to defending against guardianship and provide training and dissemination on this expanding issue (let me know if you might have funding.)
  • Decision supports, capacity, and cognitive impairment are areas we expect to expand our work.  About one-quarter of states now have formal legal recognition of supported decision making, the numbers are clear that the majority of adults with cognitive impairment rely on family, friends and other supporters to live in the community.  We will continue to explore ways to expand understanding of this, and how decisions supports interface with legal empowerment.  The medical science of understanding cognitive impairment is rapidly evolving and we will continue to work on issues of legal capacity. 
  • As I have written in the past, this field is complicated.  The issues overlap, and cross connect.  You can’t touch one, without impacting or having consequences on another. I see an expanding role for us in helping to identify the ways that this happens, and in finding ways to protect and enhance the rights, freedoms, and dignity of adults. 

A Special Welcome

On February 7th, 2022, Erica Costello will be joining our team as a senior attorney.  Prior to joining the Commission, she was the Adult Guardianship Attorney for the Indiana Supreme Court, serving as a resource to courts and the public on all matters relating to adult guardianship.  She also served for eight years as the Director of Adult Protective Services (APS) with the St. Joseph County Prosecutor’s Office in South Bend, Indiana.  Erica has a B.A. from Indiana University-Bloomington, a M.A. from Northwestern University, and a J.D. from Brandeis School of Law, at the University of Louisville, in Kentucky. Her talents and experience are a tremendous addition to our team. Please join me in extending a hearty welcome to Erica.  She will also be our first full time remote staff member.  The experience of the past couple of years, have opened the door for the ABA to consider, as needed,  appropriate full time telecommuting by staff – though we are still limited to employing staff in states that the ABA is set up to do business in.   

Looking to the Future

We stand on the shoulders of giants in this field, with a legacy that we are thankful for, and can see clearly into a rapidly changing future.  My mission is to build on a firm foundation and empower new voices and fresh ideas. I won’t be director for as long as either of my predecessors.  We need to get this right – as I age into being the beneficiary of our work.