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Best Practice

Vol. 9, Nos. 1 & 2

On Delivery of Legal Assistance to Older Persons

March 1998

Symposium '97: Reinvigorating Legal Assistance for the Elderly

On December 7-8, 1997 in Ann Arbor, The Center for Social Gerontology convened a group of over 60 key leaders in the aging and legal fields at Symposium '97: Reinvigorating Legal Assistance for the Elderly. This brainstorming meeting was the first in over 15 years -- since Paul Lichterman convened the first such meeting in Denver in 1982 -- to focus on developing an agenda for action to reinvigorate and re-energize legal assistance for the elderly and elder rights advocacy. The three key objectives of the symposium were:

Another major purpose of the meeting was to provide an energizing atmosphere for the participants which would serve to re-charge folks' batteries and provide time for renewing old friendships and developing new ones which would serve to revitalize personal and professional enthusiasm. From comments during and after the symposium, this latter goal seems to have definitely been achieved.

TCSG initiated planning for the symposium in response to what TCSG staff perceived to be a growing loss of enthusiasm within the elder law and elder rights communities, due in great measure to recent Congressional budget cuts which resulted in losses of staff/resources and restrictions on legal advocacy, as well as continuing attacks on programs for the most needy elderly and poor in America. Working with a distinguished Planning Committee and with support from the Administration on Aging, planning for the symposium confirmed TCSG's initial perceptions and also reaffirmed the need for a meeting of key leaders from across the country to develop specific plans of action to reinvigorate the legal assistance and elder rights networks.

TCSG had also found in its National Survey of Legal Assistance for the Elderly, conducted in 1997 (see article in the November, 1997 Best Practice Notes), that communication and joint planning between the legal services and aging networks was frequently inadequate, and that this lack of on-going contact served to undercut support within the aging network for legal services. Therefore, TCSG and the Planning Committee concluded early on that the symposium should include key representatives from the following groups: state units on aging; area agencies on aging; national aging membership organizations; legal services developers; legal services providers serving the elderly; Legal Services Corporation local programs; pro bono and law school programs; national legal support centers serving aging and other special populations; key national legal services offices, such as LSC, NLADA, and CLASP; nursing home ombudsmen; and other key advocates.

The symposium opened with an inspiring keynote address, titled Legal Services for the Elderly - Our Past Successes, Our Present and Future Challenges, by Jonathan Asher, the Executive Director of the Legal Aid Society of Metropolitan Denver and a long-time advocate for legal assistance for the elderly. (Jon's keynote address will be re-printed in full in the next Best Practice Notes.) Other key speakers included Alan Houseman of CLASP, Bill Benson of the Administration on Aging, and panel presentations by: Richard Ingham and Esther Houser of Oklahoma; John Hall of Vermont; and Sally Hart and Stewart Grabel of Arizona and Lenore Gerard of California. The remainder of the symposium consisted largely of intensive work group sessions in which participants focused on discussing and developing specific recommendations for actions that could be taken on the local/state or national levels to reinvigorate legal assistance for the elderly and elder rights advocacy.

Work groups developed agendas for action in the following topic areas: Networking Actions; Legal Assistance and Elder Rights Delivery Systems Actions; Congressional/Legislative Actions; Funding Actions; Issue Specific Actions--Managed Care; and Issue Specific Actions--Guardianship. The focus of these recommendations was on specific actions that can and should be taken in the coming months and next two or three years to provide a significant boost to the provision of legal assistance to the most vulnerable elders and to stimulate high impact advocacy to protect and improve the lives of older Americans.

The symposium participants developed a detailed agenda for action, a draft of which is now being reviewed by all the participants and will be put in final form in March, 1998. The symposium recommendations for action will be published in the next Best Practice Notes and in a separate report that will be widely disseminated to the aging and legal assistance networks, as well as to key policy makers. Further, symposium participants and other advocates will select particular action items which they wish to work on in coming months, so that the recommendations will become a true action agenda. TCSG will prepare and disseminate on a regular basis updates on what is happening on the action agenda.

Since TCSG will be publishing the full symposium agenda for action shortly, this article will not review the recommendations. However, it can be said that the symposium met one of its primary purposes -- to re-energize the participants and to open new lines of communication and cooperation within and between the law and aging networks. At the opening of the symposium, we stated that:

One might say that this is not the best of times nor the worst of times -- it is simply a time of challenge and a time for renewal. This is not the first nor the last time we'll face such challenges. The test for us is in how we respond to adversity, not how we play safe or avoid controversy or confrontation.

The symposium participants were invited because they were among the key leaders and advocates who had a track record of achievement and advocacy and because they possessed vision. By the conclusion of the symposium, it was clear that this sense of advocacy and vision had been fused into a very practical agenda for action to improve and protect the right of older Americans. We at TCSG look forward to sharing this agenda with you in the coming months and to working with many of you to move forward in reinvigorating legal assistance for the elderly and elder rights advocacy.

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The Center for Social Gerontology, Inc.
A National Support Center in Law and Aging
2307 Shelby Avenue  Ann Arbor, MI  48103
Tel: (734) 665-1126  Fax: (734) 665-2071