January 19, 2021

2020 – The Commission’s Year in Review

by Louraine Arkfeld, Chair and Charlie Sabatino, Director

The full PDF in which this article appears can be found in BIFOCAL Vol. 42, Issue 3. 

We take time after every year to look back on the journey and assess how well we carried forward the mission of the Commission, which is to serve as the interdisciplinary, collaborative leader of the American Bar Association’s efforts to strengthen and secure the legal rights, dignity, autonomy, and quality of life of aging persons.  It is this unique holistic focus that motivates our efforts.

Turning those aspirations into tangible results also requires support from multiple sources such as the ABA Fund for Justice and Education, the Administration for Community Living, private foundations in aging and disability, partner collaborators in aging advocacy such as Justice in Aging, and above all, the individuals whose private donations have made our work possible.  We remain deeply grateful for our supporters. 

In 2020, four areas of focus capture the year’s work:

Improving access to justice through our work with lawyers, the justice system, and other professions:

  • The annual National Aging and Law Conference went virtual this year and drew 340 attendees over two days.
  • The Commission partnered with Justice in Aging to carry out the work of the National Center on Law and Elder Rights.
  • Commission staff presented over 50 continuing education programs.
  • Staff co-produced with partners FAQs by Guardians about the COVID-19 Pandemic
  • Our bi-monthly e-journal BIFOCAL provided informative articles on everything from undue influence to legal planning in a digital world.
  • Staff guest edited a special theme issue of Generations, the Journal of the American Society on Aging on the topic of Older Persons and Access to Justice. 
  • We have continued to provide resources such as the Advance Directive Counseling Guide for Lawyers, the PRACTICAL Tool to supported decision-making, and Assessing Capacity of Older Adults with Diminished Capacity: Handbook for Lawyers.
  • Our State legislation comparative charts in guardianship and health decisions law inform and guide both practitioners and legislators.

Identifying public policy and practice solutions that make a difference to all individuals as they age:

Raising public understanding of elder rights and legal processes:

  • In this 2020 election year, the Commission collaborated with the University of Pennsylvania Penn Memory Center to produce Assisting Cognitively Impaired Individuals with Voting: A Quick Guide in both English and Spanish.
  • The four Managing Someone Else’s Money lay fiduciary guides that the Commission produced for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau continue to be a mainstay of our consumer education.
  • The Mind Your Loved Ones smartphone app has been further enhanced to make storing, managing, and sharing critical medical information and advance directives on one’s smartphone easier than ever.
  • The Health Care Advance Planning Packet was released - a trio of free resources to walk individuals and families through health care advance planning.

Combating age, disability, and economic discrimination in the justice system, law practice, and in public policy:

The Commission’s publications, education, and policy work cited above have all:

  • Countered negative assumptions of aging as equivalent to disability
  • Ensured that decision supports and other alternatives to guardianship are always fully considered by lawyers and judges
  • Reshaped assessments of capacity in the courts and in legal practice to evaluate abilities and not just deficits, along with ways to enhance abilities.
  • As the Commission begins 2021, we will be working harder than ever to:
  • Change state guardianship policy and practices to avoid guardianship when possible and protect the rights of those under guardianship
  • Strengthen elder abuse prevention and protection
  • Ensure access to justice through timely legal advice, representation, and elder friendly justice systems
  • Expand access to quality long-term supportive services
  • Ensure patients’ wishes are known and honored during and at the end of life, and more.

These efforts reflect a basic human right that even the oldest deserve justice and full participation in society, meaningful connection to family and community, quality of life and quality of care, protection from abuse and exploitation, and decision-making supports to ensure their voices are heard.  In that kind of world, we might even be able to say, in Shakespeare’s words, “With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.”

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