October 01, 2014

2014 National Aging and Law Conference

(Note: The pdf for the issue in which this article appears is available for download: Bifocal, Vol. 36, Issue 1.)

Medicare, Medicaid, guardianship, elder abuse, legal ethics, consumer law and income security—and the important roles lawyers play regarding them—were highlighted at this year’s National Aging and Law Conference sponsored by the American Bar Association Commission on Law and Aging.

A sold-out audience of 150 law, policy, and legal service development and delivery practitioners from across the country attended 19 workshops and four plenary sessions offering a wide array of programming, with a focus on practical information for front-line law and aging service providers. Among the session subjects were “Using the ADA to Take on the Government: Accessing Essential Benefits and Services for Seniors,” “Gaps, Bumps and Glitches: Smoothing out ACA Transitions to Medicare and Medicaid,” and “After Windsor: How the Demise of DOMA Affects LGBT Seniors.”

The plenary session, “Elder Law Attorneys’ Critical Role in Reducing Elder Abuse, a Growing Poverty and Civil Rights Issue,” featured speakers Marie-Therese Connolly of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a 2011 MacArthur Fellow, and Alison E. Hirschel of the Michigan Elder Justice Initiative.

"Recent research finds that one in 10 people 60-plus are victims of elder abuse,” said Connolly. “Civil attorneys have a critical role to play in preventing and responding to this serious problem, both on behalf of individual clients and with impact litigation designed to improve the systemic responses."

Other statistics cited by Connolly were that:

  • 43 million people care for someone age 50 or older
  • 47 percent of those with dementia and cared for at home were abused or neglected
  • Two-thirds of elder abuse victims are women (due in part to women’s greater longevity)

“While advocacy has focused on criminal responses to elder abuse, civil attorneys offer extraordinary resources to combat abuse on both the individual and systemic levels,” said Hirschel. “They can educate older adults and families to prevent victimization. If abuse and exploitation occur, they can recover assets, obtain protection, and help clients access the benefits and services they need to regain safety, security, dignity and autonomy. In addition, they can work with multi-disciplinary teams, serve as legal resources for advocates and service providers, and help develop systemic reforms. Elder law attorneys may be the greatest unrecognized resource in the fight against elder abuse.”

One of the slides presented during the Connolly-Hirschel presentation offered their reasons why criminal cases in the elder abuse area are not enough:

  • Such cases are pursued after the harm has occurred.
  • They punish perpetrators but rarely help victims.
  • Criminal cases apply to only a fraction of elder abuse situations.
  • Many victims do not want prosecution.
  • Such cases do not educate the citizenry about prevention.
  • Criminal prosecutions do not help implement protections.

“We are not going to prosecute our way out of this problem. … We are letting our legislatures off easy in criminalizing more acts of elder abuse without any decrease in the activity,” said Connolly.

Also included in the conference programming, held at the AARP headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 16-17, was a “listening session” for planning the 2015 White House Conference on Aging, featuring the conference’s executive director, Nora Super, and Kathy Greenlee, assistant secretary for aging at the Department of Health and Human Services. Suggestions for conference subjects included obtaining data about guardianships, a legal infrastructure for elder rights, lawyers screening for signs of capacity while doing transactional work, and the needs of LGBT older adults.

The Commission spearheaded organizing and executing the Conference this year, after it was clear that, due to lack of a lead organizer, the long-standing event might not be continued.

The National Aging and Law Conference will return on October 29-30, 2015, to Washington, D.C., with a focus on legal issues impacting low- to moderate-income Americans age 60 and over.

“By doing this work there are tremendous rewards. And I think that’s why most of us became lawyers,” said Hirschel. ■