The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

By Keith Morris, Attorney, President of Elder Law of Michigan, Project Director, CERA

With the honor of being able to provide technical assistance to the senior legal helplines being transitioned to the National Center for Law and Elder Rights (NCLER) this month, I couldn’t help but reflect on how things are different—but still the same.

When the Center for Elder Rights Advocacy (CERA) was created about 10 years ago, it was to provide technical assistance to senior legal hotlines. At that time, Shoshanna Ehrlich, who had been working with hotlines for several years, came to work for us because her previous employer, AARP, made the strategic decision to not continue that type of programming. If it hadn’t been for Shoshanna’s willingness to work with us, we would have not had the success that we have had so far. Thanks, Shoshanna. I know you still read the Legal Hotline Connections!

When we look back at the type of work CERA staff undertook 10 years ago, it is quite different than it has been in the past couple years. The following are a few observations about how the world of senior legal hotlines has changed in that time:

  1. Hotlines have become an accepted method of delivering legal services to older adults.  

There was a time when having a hotline was an innovation in legal service delivery. I was fortunate to join the hotline community several years into the education process, but I still recall conversations with legal assistance developers who thought that all senior legal hotlines did was information and referrals. Today, most states have a hotline of some fashion, with many states using hotlines as the point of entry into a legal services delivery system.

2) More senior legal hotlines are now part of an established LSC-funded legal aid organization.  

With the changes in funding and attitudes towards hotlines, it has become more sustainable to house the senior legal hotline as part of a larger program. Many of the senior legal hotlines today are housed with a statewide or regional intake unit/low-income legal hotline.

3) Hotline funding has become more diversified, but there is still a need for sustained funding.  

For as long as I have been involved with senior legal hotline programs, the issue of funding has been on almost every meeting agenda. Regardless of whether the senior legal hotline is part of an LSC-funded program, there has been a conscious effort to find other funding to support the programs. Funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Justice, State General Funds, etc. have helped many senior hotline programs sustain their efforts and even grow. But, at the next conference, there will still be discussions about sustainable funding.

4) Technology is more affordable and its value more appreciated.  

I remember the first national conference that I attended, a presentation titled “50 Tech Tips” had standing room only because it was the only presentation that really addressed how to use technology. At a conference I attended earlier this year, there were even technology vendors in the exhibit hall. The workshops weren’t necessarily about technology, but technology was a core component of discussions about client services, staff supervision, etc.

Most programs today have been able to acquire technology that is enough to meet their needs. It may be not be the newest and fastest, but the discussions about where to find the money to replace the monitor that just went out don’t seem to be happening as much.  The focus has shifted to software as a service as the next area we can use to enhance our programming. (FYI, since I didn’t know what it meant until I looked it up: Software as a Service (SaaS) basically means using software not on your computer but through a website. You pay/access the service while you need it and then you exit the website and the software is not yours.)

5) There is a greater willingness to share information and resources.  

I have said many times that 2007 changed the nonprofit community. Why? With the recession and funding cuts came discussions of collaborating more and increasing efficiency. Since that time, there has been a lot less guarding of ideas and information, and a willingness to share the brochure that was just finished, or even grant proposals to someone whom you have competed against in the past for funding. Perhaps there is more willingness to share and collaborate because technology makes it easier to do so. With listservs, websites, email, and every other way of communicating that has developed in the last 10 years, it has become almost a reflex for us to ask for help and resources from others in the hotline community. I am very thankful for the many resources we have been able to use because another hotline program was willing to share. That is basically why the legalhotlines.org site exists anyway.

6) The need for good data and more good stories being told has grown tremendously.   

Senior legal hotlines have been collecting data and reporting their efforts before that was the thing to do. Perhaps it is because, back then, we felt like we had to defend our programs and show the work we do. Whatever the reason for the start and continued creation, senior legal hotlines have used these reports to help others understand more about the type of services that are provided, the types of legal issues that are addressed, and the background of the client who is seeking help. Today, this is all standard information. Hotlines are looking at increased reporting on impacts from the service and efficiencies the hotline service model provides.

For as much as our work has changed, two aspects have not: the types of problems our clients are facing, and the effectiveness of using a telephone to give them access to services.

There are basically six types of cases that make up over 50% of the cases that the hotlines help with. While they may change in ranking, these six types of cases have been the same top six since we started keeping track of the data that way. What are they? Collections, Home Ownership, Private Landlord/Tenant, Advanced Directives, Wills and Estates, and Medicaid. Year after year, these have remained very consistent.

The telephone overcomes many of the barriers that prevent older adults throughout the country from accessing legal services. A homebound senior who lives in a rural community without internet connectivity can still receive some legal services by telephone. I am not saying that every case can be handled by the hotline. But remember, what type of legal service would that person receive if there were no hotline to call? Other than the telephones have changed, and a growing number of the hotline calls are by mobile phone, the way we provide the service is basically the same. Some of the advice has changed as well. I used to tell clients to screen their calls with an answering machine to avoid creditor calls. Who does that anymore?

Thanks everyone for allowing the Center for Elder Rights Advocacy the opportunity to work alongside you to help older adults throughout the country. I hope that we have been changed for the better.