Anne Osmer Reporting

A group of service providers to the aging and other concerned organizations recently held an Elder Rights Summit, aimed at exploring how to use community-based and legal resources to help as many older people as possible.
Approximately 130 people attended the May 23 conference that included, in addition to service providers, faith-based organizations and seniors who served as advisors. Representatives from all over the state were in attendance.
Lynne McCollum, legal services developer at the Michigan Office of Services to the Aging, speaking about the conference, emphasized the importance of integrating legal services for seniors into existing service programs. “Legal services and rights for older people need to be part of the dialogue no matter what program we’re talking about,” she said, noting that opportunities to help seniors in legal matters present often and should be taken seriously.
McCollum gave the example of a nurse or aide who is in regular contact with a senior. The nurse should take note if the senior seems constantly sedated; it could be that someone else with access to the senior’s medication is purposely drugging him or her in order to control finances or other aspects of the senior’s life.
A main goal of the Elder Rights Summit was to educate participants to make connections between aging and legal services – for example, recognize when it’s important to refer seniors to a legal hotline or other legal help.
Sharon Gire, director of the Michigan Office of Services to the Aging, moderated a panel entitled, “Why older adults need both legal and aging services: a critical intersection.” She said that as programs become more complex, such as Medicare and Social Security, it’s important older people know their rights every step of the way.
Creditors can raise special concerns, said McCollum. Seniors are often nervous about paying bills on time and fake creditors can find them – often on the Internet – and claim outstanding bills. When the senior pays the bills, he or she is sometimes left with little money for basic needs like food and medicine.
McCollum said service providers need to raise questions, for example when a senior newly requests a service such as meals. “Why does this person need meal service?” McCollum said. “Maybe they’ve been scammed. Maybe someone has abused power of attorney. We want the whole issue of elder rights to be at the table every time.”
McCollum said that aging programs need to train people who care for older people to do more than simply provide a particular service – providers need to be on the lookout for signs of financial or other abuse, and be equipped to help the senior or refer him or her to others who can help.
It’s important for service providers to ask questions such as, Who’s taking care of the finances? Who’s paying the bills? McCollum said.
Kate White, executive director at Elder Law of Michigan agreed. “Legal issues are increasingly intertwined with financial issues,” she said, especially when family dynamics come into play. She said having legal documents set up ahead of time spelling out who will be responsible – preferably a third-party everyone trusts – in the event a person can no longer handle his or her own affairs can be key to avoiding ugly family squabbles. But in order to do that, seniors need to know what’s at stake.
Keith Morris, legal services director at Elder Law, said that older people should educate themselves and guard against losing their rights unnecessarily. He gave the example of nursing homes that, upon admitting an older person, often press him or her to sign over a family member or other person as guardian – a legal choice White said is often unnecessary and that he would counsel only as a last resort. To aid in such decisions, Elder Law of Michigan runs a legal hotline to help older adults make sound choices that are in their own interest.
The Elder Rights Summit will continue its agenda as the Elder Rights Coalition.

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