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The City Bar Justice Center’s Elderlaw Project: Keeping New York City’s Seniors Informed

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

  • Organization: City Bar Justice Center

While recent studies note that people are living longer, healthier lives, it should be recognized that some seniors remain at risk of being targeted due to physical or cognitive decline, isolation and loneliness and lack of information about their rights.

In New York City, the prospect of losing the home in which one has lived for decades or becoming the victim of a scam is not mere theory; many have experienced these or similar difficulties, or have a direct relationship with someone who has. For many years, the City Bar Justice Center’s Elderlaw Project (ELP) has conducted free legal clinics at senior centers in New York City. Attorneys from the law firm of Reed Smith LLP staff the clinics and meet individually with low- and moderate-income seniors to discuss their legal problems. The seniors bring to the clinics a wide range of issues, including housing, government benefits, life planning and consumer debt, and each one receives advice, counseling and/or referrals to address their specific concern.

In addition to legal clinics, ELP also conducts community workshops throughout the city on topics of particular interest and relevance to seniors. At a recent event held at a New York City Housing Authority complex in the Bronx, the focus was on senior safety and awareness of rights. The session began with a lively presentation by community police officers who provided the audience with excellent advice, complete with demonstrations, on how to protect themselves from becoming crime victims. From learning how to safely carry a purse to avoid being strangled by a bag-snatcher, to responding to unsolicited telephone calls, the officers provided the seniors with examples of how to plan ahead and reduce the chance of being taken off guard.

ELP followed with a presentation on consumer debt. Living on a fixed income in the city is challenging, and many seniors find themselves grappling with debt. For some, trying to keep up with the increasing credit card interest payments becomes impossible, and they find themselves fending off aggressive calls from debt collectors. A substantial number of the audience admitted that they never answer the telephone but, instead, let it go to voicemail as they can no longer deal with the constant ‘dunning’ calls. The presentation focused on the importance of establishing certain key points, such as verifying whether the debt is really theirs, since some claims are based on mistake or fraud, if the debt is old, checking whether the statute of limitations applies, and being aware that the debt collector’s actions may be in contravention of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. The seniors were also advised about what constitutes harassment. Of particular interest was the information about protected sources of income that cannot be ‘taken’ by debt collectors. It was something of a revelation to the audience to learn that their social security and pensions cannot be swallowed up by creditors, contrary to what some debt collectors tell them. At the end of the session, the seniors felt more confident, empowered and prepared.

Another successful community event recently took place at the Peter Dellamonica Jr. Senior Center in Astoria, Queens. Approximately 40 seniors attended a presentation on life planning preparation conducted by one of ELP’s volunteer attorneys, Oscar Straus, III. The audience was advised about the importance of advance planning, using wills, health care directives, and powers of attorney. A similar presentation is scheduled at the Stein Senior Center this month.

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