This is a guest blog post from Elder Justice AmeriCorps Fellow Mara Casseday ('16), of the Legal Aid Justice Center in Richmond, Virginia.
I always knew I wanted to live a life of public service. After spending ten years in the military, I became a civil rights and then a legal aid paralegal, eventually going on to law school. There I continued doing public interest work, both as a volunteer during the academic year and as a summer associate. The opportunity to join AmeriCorps presented itself shortly after graduation, and I jumped at the chance.
Working in the Elder Justice program has been eye opening. Approximately 1 in 10 Americans over 60 have experienced some type of elder abuse, neglect, or financial exploitation. A study by the National Academy of Sciences estimates that only 1 in 14 cases are reported to authorities. The consequences of poverty are made much worse by abuse, neglect, or exploitation, and recovering from being a victim of those crimes is often an uphill battle for the poor. Over 25 million Americans aged 60 and over are economically insecure, living at or below 250% of the federal poverty level. 21% of married Social Security recipients and 43% of single recipients aged 65 and over depend on social security for 90% or more of their income (SSA, 2016). In 2015, 2.9 million households with a senior experienced food insecurity, and 60% of older adults eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are not enrolled.
As an Elder Justice Fellow, I serve the civil legal needs of indigent older adults who have been victimized by abuse, neglect, or financial exploitation. Early on in service, it became clear that recovery from abuse does not end with prosecution of the perpetrator. The senior may need a new caregiver or someone to assist in supported decision-making, or may need help with obtaining a protective order against a family member or caregiver perpetrator. The senior may need new estate planning documents. They may require assistance in obtaining or maintaining safe and supportive housing, whether private, voucher-based, or public. To alleviate poverty, particularly after being financially exploited, seniors may need help obtaining public benefits such as SNAP, Medicaid/Medicare, long-term care Medicaid, and Social Security. Finally, consumer issues such as problems with debt relief scams, predatory lending, lending discrimination, financial exploitation, and other scams must be dealt with to keep seniors financially healthy. I have helped clients find safe housing and advised them on money management for future Medicaid planning. I have assisted clients in obtaining their identification documents after their theft by abusive family members, and getting a new guardian after the old one became neglectful. Finally, I have provided information and teaching on scams aiming at seniors and how to avoid them, helping seniors keep from being easy targets for rip-off artists.
Helping elders secure and maintain a good quality of life in their twilight years has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I am thankful to AmeriCorps for providing the change to make a difference to some of the most vulnerable in my community.