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Best Practice

Vol. 9, nos. 3 & 4

On Delivery of Legal Assistance to Older Persons

December 1998

An Agenda for Action from the Symposium on Reinvigorating Legal Assistance for the Elderly
By: James A. Bergman, J.D.
Co-Director, TCSG

" While this is not the worst of times, it is also not the best of times for legal assistance for the elderly poor nor for elder rights advocacy. This is, quite simply, a time of challenges and a time for reinvigoration." With those words, The Center for Social Gerontology (TCSG) opened it's Symposium on Reinvigorating Legal Assistance for the Elderly late last year.

It was for that reason -- the need for reinvigoration of legal assistance for the most vulnerable elderly -- that TCSG invited a group of over 60 key leaders in aging and legal services to come to Ann Arbor, Michigan for a two day brainstorming session to develop an agenda for actions at the national, state and local levels which would reinvigorate legal assistance and elder rights advocacy for the most vulnerable elderly. In this Best Practice Notes, we are publishing the recommendations developed at the Symposium so that they can serve as an Agenda for Action for elder advocates.

In the time since the Symposium, much work has begun on the recommendations that came out of it. For example, TCSG is working on plans for the first annual Elder Rights Conference, which will bring together elder advocates and elder law attorneys to work on broadening elder rights advocacy and increase collaboration of the law and aging networks on elder rights activities. Improvements have also been made in information sharing and use of technology in the law and aging field. However, there is still a significant amount of work to do.


As background to the Symposium, during the past few years the three major public funding sources for legal services for the most vulnerable Americans had been threatened or cut:

TCSG's National Survey of Legal Assistance for the Elderly showed that over 60% of Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs) funded LSC programs with their Title III-B legal grants, thereby demonstrating the importance to elders and the Aging Network of changes in LSC requirements and delivery systems. Yet, TCSG's Legal Survey indicated that, while AAAs were very supportive of legal services, most AAAs believed that funding for legal services in their state would drop if legal were not retained as a priority in the OAA; and, the Survey found that Legal Services Developers (LSDs) and AAAs were only minimally involved in state-wide LSC planning efforts which had a major impact on the re-design of LSC delivery systems. Thus, the civil justice system for the poor was being redefined -- new and changed programs, new partnerships, new approaches to delivery, increased use of technology, etc. -- but, the Aging Network had lacked significant involvement in these changes.

Simultaneously, elders faced new programs and challenges to their autonomy and rights; thereby, increasing their needs for legal and elder rights advocacy. New programs, businesses and delivery systems, such as Medicare and Medicaid managed care (including Long Term Care), assisted living, guardianship service providers (GSPs), electronic benefits transfers (EBT) of federal payments, etc., provided new opportunities, but also presented new challenges, e.g., lack of proper notifications of benefits restrictions and appeals processes in managed care, unscrupulous and negligent actions by GSPs towards elders for whom they are appointed guardians, etc. Skills, knowledge and timing are keys to effective advocacy; and, obtaining all these continued to be a major challenge.

A key challenge facing legal and elder rights advocates in the waning years of the 1990s was finding ways to reinvigorate legal assistance and elder rights advocacy in light of these adversities. This reinvigoration process included recognizing how the legal services and elder rights worlds had evolved, discerning ways of most effectively and efficiently using today's technologies, and reaching out to allies (new and old) to re-gain the sense of mission and passion needed to protect and enhance the rights of the most vulnerable elderly.

Planning and Convening the Symposium

TCSG's impressions that the legal advocacy network for elders had lost much of its energy were confirmed in 1997 by our Legal Survey which showed that communication and joint planning between legal services and aging networks was frequently inadequate and that this lack of on-going contact served to undercut support within the aging network for legal services. The findings of the Legal Survey concerning the lack of energy and communication were confirmed in TCSG's discussions with many leading elder law attorneys and Legal Services Developers. With their encouragement and the support of the Administration on Aging (AoA), TCSG convened a distinguished planning committee of aging and legal advocates to plan Symposium '97: Reinvigorating Legal Assistance for the Elderly. To enhance communication among the key stakeholders in elder rights advocacy, the Planning Committee concluded that the Symposium should include key representatives from the following groups: state units on aging; area agencies on aging; national aging membership organizations; legal services developers; legal services providers serving the elderly; Legal Services Corporation local programs; pro bono and law school programs; national legal support centers serving aging and other special populations; key national legal services offices, such as LSC, NLADA and CLASP; nursing home ombudsmen; and other key advocates.

In order to encourage the maximum participation of the invitees in developing an agenda for action, the Planning Committee concluded that work groups should be central to the Symposium and should focus on the following topic areas: Networking Actions; Legal Assistance and Elder Rights Delivery Systems Actions; Congressional/Legislative Actions; Funding Actions; and Issue Specific Actions in two topic areas -- Managed Care and Guardianship. The work groups were to recommend specific actions that should be taken in the coming months and next two to three years to provide a significant boost to the provision of legal assistance to the most vulnerable elders and to stimulate high impact advocacy to protect and improve the lives of older Americans.

With this format and with an outstanding group of participants, the Symposium was opened with an inspiring keynote address, titled "Legal Services for the Elderly -- Our Past Successes, Our Present and Future Challenges," by Jonathan Asher, the Executive Director of the Legal Aid Society of Metropolitan Denver and a long-time advocate for legal assistance for the elderly. (Jon's keynote address is re-printed elsewhere in this issue of Best Practice Notes.) Other key speakers during the Symposium included Alan Houseman of CLASP, Bill Benson of the Administration on Aging, and panel presentations by: Richard Ingham and Esther Houser of Oklahoma; John Hall of Vermont; Sally Hart and Stewart Grabel of Arizona; and Lenore Gerard of California. The remainder of the two-day Symposium consisted largely of intensive brainstorming work group sessions in which participants focused on discussing and developing specific recommendations for actions that should be taken on the local/state or national levels to reinvigorate legal assistance for the elderly and elder rights advocacy.

Following the Symposium, TCSG compiled the recommendations and circulated a draft of these recommendations to Symposium participants for them to review and comment upon. Because the various work groups had met simultaneously, there was some overlap in the recommendations, so that, following the review, we were able to combine many recommendations. Further, we suggested and participants agreed that the recommendations should be prioritized to as great an extent as possible and an attempt should be made to limit the final agenda for action to a realistic set of recommendations that would be capable of being implemented and would have maximum impact. While this was an arduous task, inasmuch as the Symposium participants had developed an excellent set of recommendations, the final agenda for action has now been winnowed to twelve key recommendations.

Twelve Key Recommendations: An Agenda for Action to Reinvigorate Legal Assistance for the Elderly & Elder Rights Advocacy

The twelve key recommendations from the Symposium constitute an Agenda for Action to Reinvigorate Legal Assistance for the Elderly & Elder Rights Advocacy, and consist of the following actions that apply to the local/state or national arenas:

The Challenge

The recommendations from the Symposium on Reinvigorating Legal Assistance for the Elderly, from such a knowledgeable group of participants, provide a clear statement of need and direction for future action. Together these recommendations constitute a pathway for increasing the vitally necessary collaboration of the law and aging networks in order to meet the legal needs and protect the rights of America's most vulnerable older persons. Equally important, these twelve recommendations form an Agenda for Action for reinvigorating legal assistance for the elderly and elder rights advocacy at a time when such energizing is vitally necessary.

The challenges facing elder rights advocates are well known. The recommendations from this Symposium provide the direction to meet those challenges. The time is now to confront those challenges with action, for, as Frederick Douglas stated: "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. If there is no struggle, there is no progress." As we confront these challenges, we must be prepared to struggle, for legal rights for the most vulnerable in society will never be popular, but our overriding goal must be to improve the quality of life of the most vulnerable elders in America.

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The Center for Social Gerontology, Inc.
A National Support Center in Law and Aging
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