Equal Justice Works Project

I am an Equal Justice Works Fellow, sponsored by Biogen and Foley Hoag LLP, with the Elder Abuse Prevention Project of Greater Boston Legal Services. On December 17, I presented an overview of my fellowship project, focused on elders with mental illness, at Biogen’s Global Legal Department meeting. Present for my presentation were attorneys from all over the globe. Highlights from my presentation are below:

By 2030, elders are expected to make up 20% of the U.S. population, and an estimated two million of these older adults will experience severe mental illnesses. In addition, more than five million Americans currently are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. Older adults are living longer than earlier generations, due to advances in medical technologies, and are more likely to age in their homes, living alone or with caregivers. These positive trends, which help people maintain dignity and independence, also lead to increased vulnerability and risk for elder abuse and self-neglect.

From internships with Elder Protective Services and GBLS, I knew that self-neglect was one of the most common issues reported to Protective Services and that often, self-neglect was the result of an underlying mental health issue. Furthermore, self-neglecting elders are at increased risk for eviction and loss of benefits, as they may be unable to pass cleaning inspections and pay bills on time. To effect sustainable change for these clients, legal solutions must take into account underlying mental health concerns that give rise to legal issues. My fellowship project aims to target and provide legal representation to low-income elders with cognitive decline, mental illnesses, and other cognitive limitations.

My project has three components: direct representation of clients; community outreach, both to property managers and to elders in the community; and policy advocacy, to improve systems that affect elders’ abilities to age in their homes. In the first three months of her project, Eleanor has taken on clients facing financial exploitation, evictions due to hoarding, and evictions due to the actions of family members, among others.

My project goals for 2016 are to expand outreach in order to access the most vulnerable of the elder population; create a handbook for landlords outlining best practices and resources for working with mentally ill elders; and to continue networking with elder services professionals across Massachusetts, including the four community elder abuse prevention coalitions established by the Elder Abuse Prevention Project.

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