January 04, 2021 Law & Aging

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, legal services providers find creative ways to serve older adults

By Amanda Robert
Many legal services providers have worked in the past year to change how they reach and assist their clients, particularly those who are older and at

Many legal services providers have worked in the past year to change how they reach and assist their clients, particularly those who are older and at

Image from Shutterstock.com.

For Patrice Paldino, adjusting to COVID-19 meant finding new ways to reach Broward County, Florida, residents who are 60 years of age or older.

She is the executive director of Coast to Coast Legal Aid of South Florida, a legal services organization that received a grant from the American Bar Endowment in April to purchase a van and transform it into a working office that could be driven to older adults who are isolated or homebound.

But because of the pandemic, CCLA pivoted and partnered with Kids in Distress and other organizations that operate weekly food distribution sites. It stations its van—the Mobile Justice Squad—in their parking lots and provides free, contactless legal services to members of the community who are already on site.

“Particularly now with COVID, but in general for the people we serve, they don’t have time to go one day to the food bank and another day to legal aid,” says Paldino, who notes that CCLA serves about 2,000 older adults annually. “So this idea of co-locating the services is really great because it provides an additional resource for our clients that maybe we wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.”

“In some crazy ways, maybe COVID is helping us be creative with our services,” she adds.

Like CCLA, many legal services providers have worked in the past year to change how they reach and assist their clients, particularly those who are older and at higher risk for developing more severe cases of COVID-19. While some created or expanded their partnerships with community organizations, others moved their services online or outdoors.

Bet Tzedek, a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles that provided free legal services to more than 27,000 older adults between January and October, began exploring the idea of new “virtual ecosystems” amid the pandemic.

It transformed its in-person clinics, such as the Elder Abuse Restraining Order Clinic, into remote services. It produced interactive videos in English and Spanish to explain the clinic process, and through emergency funding engaged Transcend, a company that creates plain language materials, to make its print information easier to understand.

In the future, Bertha Hayden, the directing attorney of caregiver services, says Bet Tzedek hopes to take these efforts a step further and provide an educational platform to clients.

“Creating this new ecosystem and being able to provide services in this way will be extremely critical for us,” she says. “Many of the clients we serve are already vulnerable, and so not having to waste their time when figuring out where information is or being able to present it in a digestible way is also so critical.”

Lisa Liberatore adds that Bet Tzedek discovered other ways to reach older adults. As the directing attorney of elder justice and Holocaust survivor services, she works with a social worker who started supporting clients remotely rather than through home visits.

Bet Tzedek’s Holocaust survivor services advocates have also engaged in community education through remote video platforms. Libatore says this has largely been directed to social workers outside the organization who then provide that information to their clients who are Holocaust survivors.

“Social workers are trained to empower people and figure out what works,” adds Liberatore, who also has a master’s degree in social work. “I’ve been really thinking, how do we work differently with social workers? We were starting to do that right before the pandemic, and it became more vital.”

Southeast Louisiana Legal Services has tried what its executive director Laura Tuggle calls a mix of new and “old timey” approaches to working with clients during the pandemic.

In late March, the nonprofit organization launched its COVID-19 Legal Aid Hotline to make legal assistance more accessible for residents of the 22 parishes in its service area. It also introduced a series of Facebook Live sessions on such topics as foreclosure protection, tenants’ rights and unemployment benefits.

As of early December, its hotline had received more than 7,000 calls and its Facebook Live sessions were viewed about 25,000 times.

“We typically would go out to do these same kinds of presentations to councils on aging or senior centers every month across our service area, and then they all closed down,” says Tuggle, who adds that 16% of SLLS’ clients were 60 years of age or older in 2020. “We weren’t able to reach them in the same way we used to, so that’s one reason we are trying to repurpose those in-person presentations.”

She contends that although the Facebook Live sessions have been successful, it’s difficult to determine how many older adults access them. To connect with those who may not be comfortable with technology, SLLS partnered with Catholic Charities, which inserted flyers advertising the COVID-19 hotline in food boxes distributed through its Food for Seniors and Food for Families programs.

When tribes in Oklahoma began offering drive-through social services for elders, Stephanie Hudson, the executive director of Oklahoma Indian Legal Services in Oklahoma City, realized her organization could start something similar to help them with wills, powers of attorney and advance health care directives.

After gathering information from a few clients by telephone, OILS’ attorneys did a trial run in the organization’s parking lot this summer. They practiced wearing and distributing personal protective equipment and smoothed out logistics, such as making sure people stayed in their cars and providing them with pens in zip-close bags.

The organization has since hosted nearly a dozen drive-through legal clinics in the parking lots of tribal community centers across Oklahoma. Its attorneys typically serve about 1,000 elders each year, and in 2020, they assisted members of nearly half of the state’s 39 tribes through the new model, Hudson says.

She also says they will continue to offer these clinics through the winter and into the spring.

“We really are trying to make sure that our elders are taken care of without having to leave their communities,” Hudson says. “Our huge concern has been not taking COVID into their community and trying to find a way to stay in a bubble when we go. The best way we can figure out is to just stay in the parking lot.”

Sarah Galvan, a senior staff attorney at Justice in Aging, provides training and technical assistance to the legal services and aging and disability communities through her work with the National Center on Law and Elder Rights. She expects these creative ways of improving client outreach and services delivery to continue even after the pandemic.

“We’re seeing that the courts are doing a lot of thinking about how this has expanded their ability to have self-represented litigants be present in court proceedings where maybe they weren’t before, and legal services providers are doing the same evaluation of what aspects of remote assistance have expanded their reach,” Galvan says.

“Every community is a little different, so what’s working in some places is not necessarily working in others. That will be an assessment that will happen on a region-by-region, community-by-community basis, but there are promising opportunities to increase access to legal assistance, particularly for individuals and communities who have traditionally faced barriers to legal help,” she adds.