The ELDC Clinic during the COVID-19 Era

By Bridget Verrekia, Elder & Disability Law Clinic Student, Fall 2020

Participating in William & Mary Law School’s Elder Law & Disability Clinic during a pandemic is a very unique experience. Routine legal issues can no longer be handled the way they typically are, and new legal issues have come to the surface. It has been an interesting semester trying to navigate the elder law field during these times.

Taking Precautions and Utilizing Technology

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have established that elderly individuals are at an increased risk of developing serious complications from COVID-19. Figures have shown that while adults 65 and older only account for 16% of the United States population, they have accounted for 80% of the United States COVID-19 deaths. This means that elderly individuals need to take extra precautions to ensure that they are not exposed to the disease.

The implementation of these new precautions has certainly altered the practice of elder law, and my experience in the clinic. While in the past, lawyers and their clients were free to meet in person to discuss the facts of the case, complete necessary documents, and visit other legal offices, that is not the norm right now. Interactions that can take place via the phone or computer are encouraged to occur that way. This has left lawyers to need to make necessary adjustments to their everyday work.

For example, because it is harder to convey emotion via phone or computer, lawyers must make sure that they are consciously inflecting the correct tone when talking to their clients. Especially during these turbulent times, clients are seeking a comfortable atmosphere. Additionally, lawyers need to be prepared to set aside time to help elderly clients gain access to technology. This can be accomplished by emailing instructions to the client or taking the time to walk them through steps on the phone. Finally, lawyers need to be mindful of the hearing or visual deficits that their clients might have. Lawyers may need to increase their speaking volume when on the phone and potentially repeat what they have said.

Fortunately, my clinic partner and I are assisting a client who is fairly young and comfortable with technology. The majority of our conversations are able to occur on the phone via a three-way phone call. We have also been able to have Zoom meetings where my partner and I, our client, and our clinic instructors can all see each other’s faces and talk as if we were in person.

However, that is not to say that we have been able to rely on technology completely. There was an instance where we needed to have a four-way phone call while talking to the Social Security office, but our phones would not allow us to; therefore, only one of us could be on the call with our client. Additionally, there have been other interactions that simply could not occur virtually.  When our client needed to attend an in-person meeting with a probate clerk, my partner had to accompany our client while wearing a mask and social distancing.

 An Increased Need for Estate Planning

The pandemic has caused elderly clients to be fearful for the futures of themselves and their loved ones. Elder law attorneys in Virginia have recently experienced a notable uptick in individuals seeking estate planning documents during this time. However, the execution of many estate planning documents require in-person meetings. While some states have temporarily relaxed their in-person requirements by allowing virtual witnessing through video conferencing, Virginia has not.

Although it has been tough, Virginia elder law attorneys have been committed to helping their clients. Firms have found creative ways to get wills signed while also ensuring the client’s safety. Attorneys have met clients on their porches or in their firm’s parking lot.

My clinic client is still at the beginning of the estate planning process. However, we will eventually need to meet up to ensure her will gets notarized. Luckily, our clinic program has offered a safe room where we can meet for this event.

The Trouble with Long-Term Care Facilities

Given their concentrated nature, nursing home populations are at high risk of being affected by COVID-19. Figures have shown that states seeing higher numbers of COVID-19 deaths amongst the elderly tend to be the same states that have had a disproportionate number of deaths occur in long-term care facilities. In order to keep COVID-19 out of their facilities, nursing homes have made the decision to strictly limit resident interaction with outsiders.

Naturally, this has raised concerns regarding transparency. How can family members, lawyers, and other actors advocate for the residents when they are not allowed in? How can they ensure the resident is doing well both physically and mentally?

The client that I am working with has unfortunately experienced these worries first-hand. In the midst of COVD-19, her husband had to be admitted to a long-term care facility. While he was in there, she could only visit him by standing outside his window; yet she did so to keep him from feeling isolated. During this time, my client also struggled to communicate with the nursing home staff regarding what sorts of medicines her husband should and should not be given. Without being able to walk in and speak to staff directly, she felt as though she was out of the loop and not aware of how her husband was being treated.

I hope that the pandemic sees an end soon so that these issues can be resolved.