One of the most inescapable facts of life is the law. This is often a good thing since lawlessness is usually a pretty bad scene. But it means that, if you have a legal issue and aren’t fortunate enough to have the right kind of lawyer on retainer, you need a representative or a counselor to help you navigate the warrens and mazes of our system.
This is no different for older adults in California. Aging doesn’t mean slowly freeing yourself of the need for representation; indeed, it could be argued that older adults need more help figuring out the legal aspects of health care, end of life issues, and protecting yourselves from scams, abuse, and other insidious problems.
Legal assistance, however, can be costly and in the Bay Area—with rising costs of living, a rapidly aging population, and a large percentage of adults at or under the poverty line—that could be a problem. That’s where the state of California comes in.
For older adults who qualify, there are statewide Legal Service Providers (LSPs) that work through a network of Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs) to help you get the advice and counseling you need. These LSPs are found in every country in California, from north to south, and from ocean to desert to mountain.
California leads the nation in taking care of its aging population; know the programs designed to help you, and use them. You can’t escape the rigorous bureaucracy of modern life. But you can get help getting through it so that you can get past legal concerns and enjoy every day.
The Need For Legal Assistance For Older Adults
In the past 30 years, the population over the age of 65 in California has more than doubled. While this creates a growing community with stronger political power, it also means that resources are more scarce. This includes legal resources, and, unfortunately, it means that lawyers will be able to charge more for basic services. Supply and demand and all that.
This could be very bad. After all, as we said, California is expensive and given housing, medical, and other basic living costs, it is especially expensive to be an older adult. A study by the National Institute of Health estimated that, in California, the Federal Poverty Limit wasn’t even a baseline for older adults:
New calculations using the Elder Economic Security Standard (TM) Index (Elder Index) for California show that both singles and couples age 65 or older who rent need more than twice the amount established by the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) Guideline to meet basic living expenses..Housing and health care are the primary drivers of the high costs.
That means every penny counts, and for people closer to the economic margins, any legal issues could have a huge impact. And there are a lot of potential issues. Aside from mundane, everyday cases that arise from car accidents, disputes with neighbors, and the like, some legal issues that older adults will face include:
- Long-term care issues
- Payment of costs for caregivers
- Payment of costs for assisted living home
- Government benefits (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid)
- Living wills, advance directives, and powers of attorney
- Conservatorship and guardianship
- Estates, trusts, wills, probate
Many of these can be folded into even more complex issues, like family disputes over wills. And of course, there is always the need for criminal attorneys due to charges for which a person might be unprepared. This is true if you are the defense or the prosecution.
Additionally, the sad reality of life is that there are enormous amounts of scams targeting the elderly, whether they are trying to steal veteran’s benefits or using culturally-targeted scams to gain trust and money. You may need a lawyer to help you fight off such scams and get back what is rightfully yours.
But all of this costs money. And if you don’t have it, what do you do?
You look for the Legal Service Provider near you.
Legal Service Providers in California
The Older Americans Act of 1966 established certain guidelines for the legal rights of older adults, who had previously been shunted aside and left tragically vulnerable. Different states treated their obligations differently, but California has always tried to take them very seriously.
One of the primary ways California fulfills its obligations to protect the legal rights of older adults is by setting up Legal Service Providers. These providers are funded in coordination with the California Department of Aging, which works with Area Agencies on Aging to provide the best services. That’s complicated, and yes, bureaucratic. But you don’t have to know every level here. You just should know its mission:
The purpose of the Legal Services Program is to deliver high quality, high-impact, cost-effective services designed to address the unmet legal needs of vulnerable older people throughout the State of California.
By “vulnerable”, here, the state means “people in greatest social or economic need, including but not limited to low-income individuals, minorities, rural elders, and those with limited English proficiency.” This also includes many people with disabilities, the formerly incarcerated, people suffering from dementia or other mental conditions, those without access to transportation, and those who are socially isolated.
There is no real exhaustive list, and criteria can vary by jurisdiction. As a general rule of thumb, however, the provisions are for people who fall under those the “greatest economic needs” or “greatest social needs”, and of course these categories overlap. The economic need is defined, generally (though not universally), as being at or below 125% of the poverty line.
Your LSPs, through your AAAs, will help provide you with the legal assistance you need, whether that is cutting through red tape or providing actual lawyers and counselors to represent you. There are 39 different agencies representing all areas. Call the one nearest you.
Institute on Aging and the Importance of Community
It’s nice to know that the state is looking out for older adults. Too often, their needs are neglected, especially if they don’t have money. The vast divide in income means that it is easy to fall through the cracks, as most professionals (understandably) want to cater to the people who can pay them the most.
That’s where the state steps in, helping to distribute resources to everyone. And make no mistake: legal aid is a resource. You need it to plan for the future and live a safe, comfortable life, without a gnawing fear. The richest in California, through the auspices of the state, help those not as fortunate.
That’s what we believe in at IOA. We know that no one is an island, all by themselves. We know no one makes it alone. That’s why we work together, everyone helping each other. It’s why we run the Community Living Fund and Elder Abuse Prevention Program. People who face financial hardships or are being abused are often most in need of assistance. We can’t provide legal support for them, but, along with programs like LSP, we can help get them on their feet. Because we know that life is better if we help each other out.
So if there is a hand extended to you, take it. If you need legal help but can’t afford it, call an AAA near you to see if you qualify. Get the ball rolling. Get the help you need. The only thing you have to lose is frustration, fear, and the red tape that is holding you back. Cut through it, and bound into the rest of your life.
At Institute on Aging, our programs and services help older adults, their families, and caregivers explore aging together, through good times and bad, as an adventure and a journey. Contact us today to learn more.