LEGAL CONCERNS AT SENIOR CONCERNS – A NEW PRO-BONO PROGRAM TO BENEFIT THE CONEJO VALLEY

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2050, the number of Americans aged 65 and older is projected to be 88.5 million, more than double that group’s projected population in 2010. By 2030, nearly one in five U.S. residents will be aged 65 and older. With this trend, the demand for pro bono legal assistance to seniors and their caregivers in our communities is ever increasing. Those attorneys who practice in the area of estate planning, probate, and elder law know the extent of the need. With the guidance and support of Cheri Elson, who established the highly successful pro bono program at the Wellness and Caregiver Center in Camarillo, Terri Hilliard Olson wanted to replicate this same valuable service model in the Conejo Valley.

On April 17, Terri spearheaded the launch of Legal Concerns at Senior Concerns in Thousand Oaks. She serves on the board of directors of Senior Concerns, which is a private, non-profit adult day care facility for seniors, caregivers and their families dedicated to providing quality programs, support, information, resources and outreach since 1975. On May 31, Senior Concerns was honored with a Spirit of Community Award as Nonprofit Organization of the Year for 2012 by the Greater Conejo Valley Chamber of Commerce’s Community Foundation.

Legal Concerns will provide free legal and mediation services on the first and third Tuesdays of each month from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Senior Concerns office (401 Hodencamp Road). Clients will have scheduled one-hour appointments with an attorney volunteer on the panel, who will provide direction on end-of-life issues, drafting essential documents (e.g., health care directives, durable powers of attorney), and issues related to conservatorships. Appointments are already booked through December. This service is not based on financial need. When I attended the open house on April 17, I met a number of the volunteer attorneys who will serve on the pro bono panel, including Grant Pederson, Andrea Place, Cristian Arrieta, Annabelle Blanchard, and Libby Barrabee. At the open house, volunteers were given an orientation and training for the program and a tour of the Senior Concerns facility. Senior Concerns’ advocates will receive calls from clients, schedule appointments, prepare the initial intake, and handle follow up confirmations. As the program coordinator for Legal Concerns, Terri will be reviewing the intakes, coordinating with the volunteers, training, developing the forms and procedures, and providing any other assistance as needed. The word is starting to spread and more attorney volunteers have already signed up and are scheduled for appointments.

Often, seniors are just not aware of lesscostly options and legal solutions associated with planning ahead to ensure that they maintain control. Andrea Gallagher, president of Senior Concerns, and her team of advocates and care managers hear reallife problems that could have been solved or even avoided had these seniors or their caregivers been provided the proper advice and had the necessary legal documents in place. This pro bono service will help alleviate these issues and perhaps guide people in the right direction. The goal as stated by Scott Jones, an analyst for the Ventura County Superior Court, is to avoid having people go through the overextended and underfunded court system in terms of probate and court-appointed conservators. Programs like this will hopefully reduce the backlog of cases stuck in the courts. According to Gallagher, over 800 people are served/helped each year through Senior Concerns’ various programs such as Meals on Wheels, adult day care, senior advocacy services, and support groups. They also benefit countless others through different fundraising and community outreach events throughout the year. That’s why everyone is excited about this wonderful program, which will help keep vulnerable seniors safe and secure.

The response and support from the VCBA, the Estate Planning and Probate Section, VCBA members, as well as the court has been tremendously encouraging. VCBA’s Volunteer Lawyer Services Program (VLSP) will provide any administrative support including malpractice insurance to cover the volunteers. Terri sees this as a way for the public, who may not know which lawyer to call, to be able to tap into this resource of experienced, trusted and respected attorneys who can help answer questions and provide proper advice in a safe and comfortable environment. As volunteers in the pioneering Camarillo program can attest, a lot of advice can be given and many problems/issues can be resolved within the hour-long session. If clients need further assistance, however, the volunteer attorney can continue the relationship or refer them to another attorney who can meet their specific needs.

In the future, Legal Concerns would like to expand this idea to other senior centers in the East County. If more volunteers are found, there is no reason why they couldn’t have appointments on a weekly basis because the demand is certainly out there. If you are interested in assisting and would like to find out more information, please contact Terri Hilliard Olsen at terri@terrihilliard.com or (805)778-0111.

About Charmaine H. Buehner

Charmaine H. Buehner is an Assistant County Counsel and is the 2015-2016 president of the Ventura County Bar Association.