Sometimes, a partnership blooms in the most unlikely of places. That’s certainly what happened at Aging Together, a regional partnership of more than 100 organizations and individuals serving a five-county region in north central Virginia.
Recently, Aging Together staffers were sifting through grant opportunities when they came across a grant program through the American Bar Association (ABA) Commission on Law and Aging to provide funding for local legal services organizations.
But legal services for older adults had not been on the Partnership’s radar. Instead, Aging Together had focused much of its efforts on such issues as long-term care, transportation and housing costs for the area’s elder population. "We had not yet reached out to the legal community," says Aging Together Project Coordinator Chris Miller. "We didn’t have good connections there."
But through their research and writing of the proposal for the ABA grant, Miller and others at the Aging Together Partnership began to see the rising demand for legal services among the area’s aging population. Rappahannock Legal Services (RLS), a non-profit legal aid organization that Aging Together frequently worked with, had also noticed an increase in referrals from seniors, and Aging Together began to better understand the scope of legal needs in the elder community. "When we were writing the grant, it was a lot of document cases — wills, trusts, powers of attorney and medical directives," says Miller. "But right behind that, we saw people looking for help in protecting their assets and structuring their estate."
But while the need for elder law services was increasing, Aging Together discovered that few — if any — attorneys in the local legal community specialized in serving such clients. For starters, says Miller, attorneys were concerned about the wide range of issues broached by aging clients, from standard legal questions to more difficult queries about Medicaid eligibility and family disputes. "The system is so complex, and they were worried about giving bad advice," she says.
To combat the lack of legal resources for older adults in Aging Together’s five-county region, the organization partnered with RLS on the ABA grant application. And since receiving funding from the ABA, the partnership has laid out a range of educational and service-oriented goals, from providing citizens with help on such things as choosing a lawyer and outlining common legal issues to offering elder law training to local attorneys. "If we didn’t offer this training here, lawyers would have to travel around Virginia to be trained in elder law," says Aging Together Project Director Sallie Morgan.
The five-county Rappahannock-Rapidan region — which includes Culpeper, Fauquier, Madison, Orange and Rappahannock counties — has seen a tremendous boom in its older population in recent years. In fact, that population is expected to grow by 100% by 2020. And while the region is relatively close to metropolitan Washington, D.C., it is still a fairly rural area. As a result, older citizens often are far removed from services such as health care facilities.
Meanwhile, more than 10% of the area’s older adult population is at or below the poverty line, and rising housing costs continue to stretch their household budgets. So it’s unsurprising that many seniors in the Rappahannock-Rapidan region are reluctant to spend what little extra money they have on legal services. "How much it costs is a question a lot of people are asking," says Miller. "A lot of them don’t have a lot of money for an attorney."
But legal services are indeed necessary. Older adults often need help with basic estate planning, from drawing up wills to choosing health care proxies. And, as Miller says, the legal services required by the older population can get very complex, from unraveling Social Security errors to resolving family disputes.
Miller recalls the recent case of a gentleman in his 80s who was laid off without receiving the proper severance. "He was working someplace for 31 years, and because he isn’t literate, he had someone he uses to read his documents," says Miller. "That person didn’t fully appreciate what he was reading, and the gentleman ended up being laid off without getting the severance he might have been able to negotiate." Miller says an attorney will likely take on the man’s case pro bono.
Tackling the elder care problem in the Rappahannock-Rapidan area meant putting together a two-pronged approach targeting both lawyers and citizens. "Legal services hadn’t been part of our partnership before," says Morgan. "So we came up with a plan to do both attorney and citizen education."
For attorneys, the Aging Together Partnership scheduled a series of training sessions. The first of those sessions recently featured Kathryn Pryor, an attorney with the Virginia Poverty Law Center in Richmond, who joined with RLS to walk local attorneys through a range of elder law issues. "The goal is to educate people to become elder law specialists," says Morgan.
Attorneys attending the session were given a one-page, laminated resource guide to help them navigate common elder law topics. "It’s a way to connect them into the system of senior support in a way that they hadn’t been connected before," says Miller.
The Partnership charged attendees a nominal sum, but waived that registration fee if the attorney agreed to accept two pro bono elder law cases. Of the 18 attorneys that attended, three agreed to take on pro bono cases. "That in and of itself was a success," says Miller.
To help educate citizens, the Partnership is in the process of developing a consumer guide to offer guidance in choosing and accessing legal services. The guide is being developed through collaboration with citizens and legal professionals. "You do a lot of research on how to pick your Realtor or buy a car, but not a lot of people know how to interview an attorney or negotiate with an attorney," says Miller. "Part of what we wanted to do is dispel that ignorance and make people better informed consumers. If you’re going to spend dollars, we want to make sure you feel confident that your money is being used wisely."
Though Aging Together didn’t intend to tackle elder law, Morgan and Miller say it was serendipitous that the organization’s staff stumbled upon the ABA grant program that funded its current efforts. "It couldn’t have happened without the direct partnership [with RLS and the ABA]," says Morgan. "And it wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t have the staff looking for potential funding opportunities."
The initial legal education session also helped broaden the coalition by creating stronger bonds between local attorneys and the Aging Together Partnership. In fact, one retired attorney that attended the session was so taken by the need for elder care services that she immediately offered to take on pro bono cases. "She said she’d love to do pro bono work, but she didn’t have office space," says Miller. "We immediately had several of our partners offer office space for her to take on this work."
Aging Together’s efforts also have gained the support of the Virginia Department on Aging’s Project 2025, an initiative to boost access to legal services for the state’s growing population of older adults. Miller says the Aging Together Partnership has been tapped by Project 2025 to help communicate with the state’s legal community on such things as caregiver and employment issues for those who work with Virginia’s older population.
The efforts to build elder law capacity in the five-county Rappahannock-Rapidan area has highlighted the importance of forging strong partnerships. Emerging from a routine search for grant funding, Aging Together’s elder law program has made strides and created collaborative relationships beyond what many at the organization expected. "It’s amazing how a Partnership can start very simply and continue to grow," says Miller. "It’s taken on a life of its own, and is starting to go in directions that we never thought it would."
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