The president of the United States is a 71-year-old reality TV star. One of his fiercest critics is the acid-tongued Rep. Maxine Waters, age 79. At age 81, public radio host Diane Rehm married a 78-year-old. At a relatively youthful 68, rock god Bruce Springsteen’s solo acoustic show is one of the hottest tickets on Broadway, while celebrated fiction writer Amy Tan, 65, is earning acclaim for adeptly tackling the art of memoir with “Where the Past Begins.”
These influential older Americans are emblematic of the cultural shift that began in our country when the baby boom generation (those born between 1946 and 1964) reached retirement age in 2011—and will continue for decades to come. Census figures show that the number of U.S. residents ages 65 and over grew from 35 million in 2000 to 49.2 million in 2016. The Population Research Bureau says that between 2020 and 2030 the number of seniors will increase by 18 million; by 2060, close to one quarter of Americans will be 65 or older.
The graying of the U.S population affects all areas of our society—from the economy and the labor force to our health care system and federal safety net programs like Medicare and Social Security. A recent POLITICO story about a brewing crisis in the U.S. hospice care system, for example, sounded the alarm on the urgent need for the health care field to quickly adapt if we are to effectively meet the needs of our country’s rapidly ballooning and long-lived senior population.
“With baby boomers aging and likely to live with serious illness for several years, understanding how best to take care of the aged and the dying is becoming an ever more pressing issue in America—emotionally, morally, and financially,” writes POLITICO Health Editor Joanne Kenen. Reinforcing that point, geriatrics expert Joan Teno has said, “We need to address this very quickly. The tsunami of frail elderly people with complex multiple illnesses is coming.”
Indeed, not every older American enjoys the abundant resources of the likes of Bruce Springsteen or the health care and financial security provided by a Congressional retirement plan. Right now, about 6.4 million older Americans live in poverty—defined by the federal government as an annual income of $12,060 or less. While the poverty rate among the elderly has declined over time, senior care experts project that millions of seniors will struggle financially in the coming decades due to cuts to safety net programs, shrinking employee pension programs, longer life spans, rising health care costs, inadequate retirement savings and other demographic and lifestyle factors. Justice in Aging, a civil legal aid organization dedicated to elder issues, projects that by 2030, 72 million seniors will be living in poverty and that senior homelessness will increase by 33 percent by 2020.
Preventing a crisis of elder poverty and helping older adults live safe and fulfilling lives will require greater advocacy from and on behalf of seniors, creative policy making, and new community partnerships. We must also strengthen existing programs that have proven effective in helping vulnerable elders—Social Security, Medicare and Meals on Wheels—and, of course, civil legal aid.
Civil legal aid, which provides free legal assistance and representation to low-income people facing non-criminal legal issues, is a potent tool to assist vulnerable seniors in securing proper health care and housing, to protect them from physical abuse and financial exploitation, and to get access to other benefits and services to help keep them solvent.
In Massachusetts and around the country, many legal services organizations have units dedicated exclusively to addressing the legal needs of the elder population. For example, Greater Boston Legal Services’ (GBLS) Elder Abuse Prevention Project, in addition to providing direct services to elder clients, provides training for care providers, community members, and seniors to raise public awareness of the forms such abuse can take. GBLS is playing a role in assisting the increasing number of elders who are falling victim to abuse by opioid addicted family members, a side effect largely overlooked until recently.
The organization recently helped “Pauline,” a 77-year-old Chelsea woman, avoid eviction after her daughter’s unwanted presence in her apartment drew the attention of the woman’s landlord. The daughter had originally moved in with Pauline after GBLS helped the family qualify for a federal stipend that compensated the daughter for caring for Pauline. Unfortunately, the daughter took advantage of the situation, using the apartment for activities prohibited in the lease. Pauline made her daughter move out.
Pauline was injured shortly afterward, requiring hospitalization followed by a stay in a nursing home rehab unit. Unbeknownst to her, Pauline’s daughter had moved back into her apartment during this time, prompting the landlord to initiate an eviction. GBLS, however, negotiated an agreement that enabled Pauline to keep her apartment provided she received care from a different family member and her daughter stayed clear of the premises. GBLS also advocated on Pauline’s behalf to ensure she received proper follow-up care upon discharge from the nursing home. These arrangements enabled Pauline to spend the last two weeks of her life back in the home that she loved and fought so hard to keep.
MetroWest Legal Services’ (MWLS) Senior Citizen's Legal Project assists elders in central Massachusetts with housing needs, health care directives, nursing home issues, domestic relations, and other issues. In one instance, they prevented Florynce, a senior living alone in Watertown, from becoming homeless after a $500 rent increase forced her to seek a new place to live. Before a MWLS attorney began advocating on Florynce’s behalf, her landlord was refusing to negotiate a lease extension to give Florynce time to obtain senior housing through the local housing authority. The attorney negotiated the lease extension and brought Florynce to the attention of the housing authority director, who approved a measure to give Florynce priority on the housing waiting list. A few weeks before her lease extension expired, an apartment opened up and Florynce made a smooth transition to her new home.
These are but two examples of the life-sustaining assistance that civil legal aid can provide to low-income seniors. As we face a future of assisting and caring for a disproportionately large population of senior Americans, we’ll need innovations in health care, housing, transportation and other infrastructure to adequately and safely meet their needs. But we must also continue critical existing services. Civil legal aid has long been an effective means of advocating for the needs of vulnerable seniors individually and systemically. Given all the looming challenges, now is an opportune time to strengthen and expand our country’s network of civil legal aid programs.