Serving Seniors Where They Live

Kardas--5412More than 40 million people in the U.S. are over the age of 65 today, and that number is expected to double by 2030. Many of these seniors are living on fixed incomes and struggle with legal issues related to caregiving, finances, their homes, and end-of-life planning. As they age, the accessibility of legal services can become as large a barrier to receiving help as affordability.

The Center for Disability and Elder Law (CDEL), one of the organizations you are supporting through the Investing in Justice Campaign, focuses on serving low-income elderly and disabled people in the Chicago area and has promising initiatives in place to better serve this population.

Cases that can wreak havoc on a senior’s peace of mind run the gamut from evictions to consumer fraud. An increasingly common case CDEL handles is collections defense: debt buyers intimidating seniors into paying off old debt by threatening police involvement, jail, or taking the money out of the senior’s social security all completely illegal scenarios. There are also a number of cases where seniors don’t bother to formalize their title to a family home, only to risk losing it after their parents’ death.

To better reach CDEL’s clientele, staff attorney Caroline Manley designed and launched four Senior Legal Assistance Clinics in the Cook County suburbs for those with difficulty getting downtown. After receiving a CBF-sponsored Equal Justice Works fellowship, Caroline opened an additional four clinics within the city limits in high-need communities. CDEL now runs 12 clinics in 10 locations and is on track to help more than 400 seniors this year through this program. Pro bono attorneys and groups have adopted seven of the clinics, and Caroline hopes others follow suit so that more of these clinics can be opened in the future. We’ve really become embedded in the community, she says.

As one example, Joe, an elderly veteran, was retired and happily living in the suburbs in the home where he had grown up. Suddenly, he found himself in a crisis when his mortgage company made a significant tax error that in turn made Joe’s mortgage payments unaffordable on his fixed income. He soon was facing foreclosure and on the verge of losing his childhood home when he was connected to one of CDEL’s Senior Legal Assistance Clinic. Thanks to the good work of an experienced CDEL pro bono lawyer, Joe was able to get a mortgage modification that again makes his mortgage payments affordable and allows him to continue living in his lifelong home as a stable and independent member of our community.

CDEL also recently launched a veterans’ clinic with Jesse Brown VA Center, a soon-to-be medical-legal partnership for disabled and elderly veterans. Referrals will be set up with a veterans’ benefits program run with John Marshall Law School. The clinic provides holistic assistance, as it works within the VA Center’s infrastructure of social workers and psychologists. Inspired by this holistic legal model, CDEL hopes to continue a social work student program in its main office so that students can help clients with the social impact of their legal cases.

CDEL’s mission is not only to serve seniors, but also help protect and empower them through its Senior Center Initiative. Educational outreach seminars on advanced directives take place at independent living and senior recreation facilities and are designed to educate seniors on how they can protect themselves when appointing a power of attorney. Volunteer attorneys then set up workshops to prepare powers of attorney and living wills on site. Since its inception, this initiative has reached over 8,600 seniors through nearly 600 presentations, and has also trained over 1,400 attorneys through CLE programs. We’re taking a proactive approach to protecting the rights of seniors as opposed to a reactive approach after the ability to reach decisions, Tom adds.

These sort of day-to-day programs make such a substantial change in the life of our client, said Legal Director Tom Wendt. The impact that can make on someone is immense, in peace of mind alone.