The aging of the state will increase legal needs of elderly, expert says

Posted Jan. 25, 2012, at 7:34 p.m.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — The state’s aging population will tax the legal system over the next several decades, judges and lawyers were told Wednesday afternoon at a symposium on access to justice.

Maine will need to improve acoustics and lighting in its courtrooms, install handrails in hallways and provide documents in large print, said Georgia J. Anetzberger, an expert on aging from Cleveland. In addition, she said, the system most likely will need to provide elder specialists, similar to victim-witness advocates, to help the elderly negotiate the legal system.

Eight national trends will drive the need for legal services for the elderly, she told the audience of about 100. They are:

• The U.S. population is aging.

• Ageism will be more pervasive.

• The number of elderly with cognitive impairments is growing.

• Potential family support is diminishing.

• Social isolation among older Americans.

• Responding to elder abuse is increasingly complicated.

• Major government programs that benefit the elderly are moving toward insolvency.

• The medicalization of society will implode as baby boomers age.

Ageism will increase the number of age discrimination cases in housing and employment, according to Anetzberger. The complicated rules for Social Security Insurance and Medicare will cause more elderly people to file administrative complaints and lawsuits over benefits. And baby boomers, focused on youth and obsessed with wellness, will increase the number of medical malpractice lawsuits filed, the expert said.

Anetzberger offered general recommendations on most problems, such as networking with nonlegal agencies that serve the elderly and encouraging law school students to consider elder law. She specifically urged the legal system to “expand and strengthen” the rules around guardianships for the elderly, which are handled by the state’s county Probate Courts.

Guardianships, which are awarded by a judge, give decision-making power over financial matters to another individual for a person deemed to be incapable of handling his own affairs because of a competency problem such as dementia. Power most often is awarded to a spouse or relative.

“One study has shown that abuse and neglect by a guardian is an overwhelming problem across the country,” Anetzberger said. “Courts need to do a better job of screening and monitoring them.”

Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice Ellen Gorman, who moderated Wednesday’s discussion, said that early identification of the needs of an elderly individual and cooperation among community resources and service providers would be key to meeting the legal needs of Maine’s elders and assuring they have access to justice.

The program was sponsored by the Maine State Bar Association and the Justice Action Group.

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