Thoughts on Leaving the Elder & Disability Law Clinic: Surprises, Concerns, and Paying It Forward

By Paige Melton, Elder & Disability Law Clinic Student, Spring 2018

This week marks the end of my two-semester run working in the Elder & Disability Law Clinic.  Working in the EDLC has been an incredible experience for me; and I know other students, past and present, share in my sentiment.  I thoroughly enjoyed the substantive work, the clients, and the Clinic’s positive environment.  However, I know that not everyone gets to have this experience.  So, I would like to share some about what surprised me, what concerned me, and my parting encouragements.

Let me start by saying there are a lot of resources and options available to seniors and disabled individuals in our legal system and community.  For instance, estate planning provisions allow for one’s voice and options to be memorialized, and there is a host of benefits available to the financially needy and disabled. However, I was very surprised at how long some people will wait to take advantage of these opportunities.  Perhaps it is the unpleasant topics of death and incapacity that make people hesitant to be proactive, or just simple procrastination, but several times I observed clients or potential clients waiting until the last minute to put estate planning documents in order.  In some instances, their delay prevented them from enjoying the opportunities that could have otherwise been available to them.  During my tenure with the EDLC, I never observed a case where waiting was a good thing.

One major thing I will continue to encourage everyone[1] to do is create estate planning documents as soon as you have the ability.  Wills and Powers of Attorney can be modified or even revoked after execution—but having them in place now is vital to preserving one’s autonomy and wishes, should something unexcepted occur.

A second issue that surprised me, and remains a big concern for me, is guardianships.  There are countless elderly and disabled individuals in our community that desperately need guardians or conservators to help protect their best interests and property.  But sadly, for these individuals, there is no one available or willing to step into the role—perhaps no loved ones are close by to recognize their need, they do not have family or friends with the time or ability to serve, or maybe their disability has led them to ostracize themselves from any assistance.

Thankfully, there are some resources available.  There are Public Guardianships funded through the Commonwealth and there are also private charitable organizations that provide assistance. For example, Jewish Family Service and Catholic Charities both take on guardianships of elderly and disabled individuals in need.

However, the capabilities of these entities combined are not enough.  There are still needy people that “fall through the cracks.”  As of 2016, Virginia had only arranged funding for only 706 individuals across the entire state to be assisted by a public guardianship.  Furthermore, there are long wait lists for guardianships for both Jewish Family Services and Catholic Charities—particularly for impoverished individuals.  How many people remain in need? It’s incredibly difficult to tell—again, they have fallen through the cracks and the system is not able to account for their care and needs.

What I suggest people do, in light of these concerns, is donate![2] Please consider donating your time, attention, or any available resources to organizations that assist the aged and disabled.  For law students, consider enrolling in the Elder & Disability Law Clinic or volunteering for the regular pro-bono estate planning events in the area.  For attorneys, consider serving as a guardian pro-bono to someone in need.  For concerned citizens, volunteer or consider making donations to one of the several organizations in the area.

In doing these things, you bolster the ability for these entities to help the needy in your area. If that’s not persuasive enough, consider this—you may one day need these services—and it could be sooner than you expect.  Some consequences of aging or disability appear can appear suddenly, and wouldn’t it be comforting to know that organizations that are eager to assist are well equipped to meet increasing need? Think of any current generosity as your own system of Social Security—pay it forward, and hope that in the future, when you may need assistance, you have helped develop a pattern of generosity and the next generation will step up to assist you.

[1] This advice is not just for elderly or disabled individuals!

[2] Again, this advice is for everyone!