Over the past few years, the environment surrounding legal assistance for the most vulnerable elderly has become increasingly unstable. Funding cuts from Legal Services Corporation; stagnant or decreased Title IIIB funding; and the uncertainty of the Older Americans Act and legal as a priority service, have all affected the delivery of legal assistance to older persons. TCSG's national survey on legal assistance provides one of the first examinations of how states and localities are adjusting to these new limitations.
TCSG's survey findings suggest that the past few years have produced both positive and negative changes in the delivery of legal assistance to the elderly. However, the survey results raise real concerns about the level of joint planning between legal providers and the aging network in these times of upheaval. This period of crisis could have been an opportunity for forging mutually supportive efforts to obtain new funding for legal assistance for the elderly (as happened in some states, such as Oklahoma and Washington) and/or for creating new delivery system methods that focused on elders' needs (as happened in states such as Vermont and Washington). These opportunities still exist, but it appears that more efforts must be made by both the legal and aging networks in this area.
Furthermore, the survey results suggest that there is a need for a detailed examination by legal assistance providers and the aging network of how the delivery system changes that have occurred have affected the accessibility of legal assistance to the most vulnerable elderly. In particular the increased use of technology in intake systems and the increase in phone/brief advice needs further study in relation to their impact on access to legal assistance by the most vulnerable elderly.
Finally, the aging network must examine whether impact work on key elder rights issues is being reduced, and how it can be retained, expanded or enhanced. The reported shift towards brief service may limit the degree of impact work provided for older persons. Further, the aging network needs to examine its own view of the role of legal providers in overall elder rights advocacy, especially in light of the survey finding that 42% of area agencies on aging do not encourage impact work by their Title IIIB legal providers.
This is a critical period for legal assistance for the elderly, and the results of TCSG's national survey suggest that much too little attention is currently being focused on the forces that are at work and their impact on protecting the legal rights of the most vulnerable elderly. The time is ripe for a concerted joint effort by legal providers and the aging network to reinvigorate legal assistance for the elderly at the local, state and national levels.
Acknowledgments & Introduction | Methodology | Highlights of Findings & Implications for Action | Discussion of Survey Highlights | Report of Survey Findings by Respondent Type | Conclusion