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January 01, 2012

Dedicated Senior Helpline Reaches More Seniors and Identifies Trends in Legal Needs

A key objective of the Massachusetts Senior Legal Assistance Project, funded through an Administration on Aging (AOA) Model Approaches grant, is to increase access to legal services throughout the state for low-income older adults by doing more with less. Sound familiar? Yet by leveraging expertise and tweaking processes through a collaborative approach, this initiative is succeeding.

The three-year legal services capacity building grant, awarded in 2010 to the Legal Advocacy and Resource Center (LARC) of Boston, in partnership with the Massachusetts Executive Office of Elder Affairs, was aimed at assisting those in greatest economic and social need.

As a first step, an advisory committee was created, comprised of stakeholders from across the state. The committee’s initial task was to conduct a statewide needs assessment to gauge the highest legal priorities for adults aged 60 and older. Responses were collected from legal services providers and from consumer surveys of case managers, protective services workers, information and referral workers, and healthcare providers and caregivers. Based on the assessment, project partners launched a dedicated statewide elder legal services helpline in July 2011 to more effectively and efficiently meet low-income older adults’ needs, especially in rural and other underserved populations.

Boston’s Legal Advocacy and Resource Center is a statewide legal aid assistance phone portal, which typically serves 13,000 people annually, of which 1,600 are seniors. Yet, many older adults would not or could not wait in a long call queue. With the launch of a dedicated helpline, now older adults are more able to reach a live legal advocate. And unlike with the general legal aid hotline, older adults can leave a message to have a call returned.

"The dedicated senior helpline is working. We served 1,364 seniors in just the first six months," says Rosa Previdi, executive director of LARC and co-director of this project.

Project co-director Gordon Shaw, executive director of the Massachusetts Justice Project (LARC’s counterpart serving Central and Western Massachusetts) has logged an additional 404 cases from elders. Elders phone a toll-free number and are directed to select a number on their phone’s keypad based on the region of the state where they live to receive advice and assistance.

The centralized helpline also is revealing some subtle differences between the legal needs older adults and the general population. "Close to 60 percent of calls coming into the senior helpline are related either to housing stability, such as evictions and inability to pay rent or tax foreclosures, or consumer issues, such as debt collection or bankruptcy and debt relief," says Shaw. "Whereas with the general population, 45 percent of cases are related to housing and 14 percent concern consumer issues." In addition, notes Shaw, the poor economy is taking its toll in another way: unemployment issues, especially for seniors in their sixties, nearly doubled in 2011 from previous years.

The Boston area has seen a similar trend, with 340 cases related to housing problems and 240 related to consumer issues, including debt collection harassment and bankruptcy. "Many elders can’t pay their debt and are ashamed or afraid because they’re receiving calls telling them that they are going to jail and their Social Security money will be taken," says Previdi. "They are so relieved to find out that their income is protected."

Shaw notes that the Massachusetts Justice Project hopes to set up a debt collection clinic with volunteer attorneys in Worcester (the second largest city in Massachusetts) to represent clients in court. If the prototype is successful, he’d like to roll it out to other areas. The Volunteer Lawyers Project has been successful with this type of clinic in the Boston Municipal Court.

Another trend uncovered through the senior helpline is increasing requests for wills and advance directives. To meet this increase, the Legal Advocacy and Resource Center partnered with the Women’s Bar Foundation to identify lawyers to provide this type of assistance to older low-income adults in the greater Boston area. "It’s challenging to get pro bono work on an extended case, but these type of smaller bites might help busy attorneys to work it into their schedules," says Shaw.

Staff of the senior helpline receive initial in-house trainings on "nuts and bolts" issues, such as Medicare and Medicaid. Staff continue to develop their expertise on issues affecting seniors, such as through webinars from the National Legal Resource Center, National Consumer Law Center, the Center for Elder Rights Advocacy, and the National Senior Citizens Law Center.

Going forward, Previdi says that she’d like to send out surveys to evaluate the progress of the helpline and have law students do follow up calls with the elders to find out if the advice they received was helpful and had a good outcome after one month.

"Having a centralized intake is a novelty in Massachusetts and is still a work in progress. We’ll keep tweaking the program for continual improvement," she says. "It’s so exciting to have attorneys and representatives from the Office of Elder Affairs, students from different law schools, and representatives from various councils of aging and different medical partnerships at the same table discussing how to improve access to legal and other services for elders throughout the state."

Shaw suggests that others considering setting up a centralized advice and delivery system bring in advocates within their legal services community who are the experts and figure out how to make it fit with systems that are currently in place. "One challenge is that advocates felt somewhat territorial over their clients and saw this collective approach as them losing connections they had made," he says. "Instead, approach it as an enhancement to help elders, and set it up so everyone feels a sense of ownership in creating the program," he advises.