Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : March 2005

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"Elder Law Clinics Help Seniors Grow Old Gracefully"
By Lisa Muscara


Two pool balls collide with each other, hurling a third into the corner pocket. Music drifts in from a room down the hall in which the latest line-dancing moves are being perfected. Across the room, a group of four people enjoys a high-spirited game of Spades.

No, this is not a scene from a cruise ship or a college dorm. It’s a senior center in Prince George’s County, and the members are up to their usual activities. Since this is the second Thursday of the month, several of them have also gathered to attend a special Elder Law Clinic co-sponsored by the Law Foundation of Prince George’s County, Inc., (LFPGC) and the Prince George’s County Area Agency on Aging (PGCAAA).

Attorney Karren Pope-Onwukwe, LFPGC Director of Development and Public Relations, coordinates the clinics, which are staffed by a panel of volunteer attorneys. The clinics have grown from a program conducted only once a year in one location to a monthly clinic held in three different senior centers throughout Prince George’s County. The PGCAAA provides space at multiple locations across the county, including Bowie Senior Center in the northern portion, Camp Springs Senior Center in southern Prince George’s county and Glenarden Senior Nutrition Center in the center of the county.

Pope-Onwukwe has developed a simple but very effective (not to mention popular) model for the clinics. She has established a routine that allows easy access to much-needed legal information for the senior clients while preparing resources that minimize the “prep” time required of the volunteer attorneys. To support the attorneys’ efforts, Pope-Onwukwe has developed talking points for each clinic topic which she shares directly with the volunteers, and they are kept in a notebook at each clinic location for quick reference. Clinics begin with a brief presentation by the volunteer attorney on the month’s topic, and the attorney then addresses questions from the group, using the remaining time to discuss individual legal concerns with participants. Each center that hosts an Elder Law Clinic announces and promotes the clinic topic in advance and maintains a sign-up list where seniors can schedule to have a 15-minute one-on-one consultation with the volunteer attorney.

The clinics examine a broad range of issues pertinent to seniors, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and consumer fraud, in addition to trusts, estates and wills. “Sometimes what happens with seniors is not so much that they need an attorney, but they need someone to help them fill out paperwork,” explains Pope-Onwukwe, noting the profound impact that basic information, guidance and advocacy from these clinics has on the senior clients. “One lady came in, and her concern was with her Social Security payment and her Medicare premium. And so we talked her through that process, and I think she’ll be okay. She’ll probably come back this month to tell us that things worked out.”

One of the main topics covered in these Elder Law Clinics is trusts and estates. A common misconception asserts that pro bono clients do not need help with trusts and estates, but Pope-Onwukwe challenges this belief, explaining the need she has encountered. “Some people come in and they actually have assets, but they might be timid about going to see an attorney because they don’t trust that someone won’t take their money,” she notes. “Other people may have come into money and they don’t know what to do with it or how to handle it. They may have received an inheritance, or some people retire and receive a lump-sum payment, and all of those kinds of folks need assistance also. You have a full range of clients. One of the big questions deals with probate – someone has died, and the client is trying to deal with the estate. A lot of times, the estate is insolvent, and they don’t know what to do. They may have a house or something, and they have more bills, but they don’t have any liquidity, and they’re concerned that they’re going to have to sell the house. They need an attorney, they really do.”

Seniors in Prince George’s County are the fortunate benefactors of an exceptional cooperative project between the LFPGC and the PGCAAA. Thanks to the straightforward delivery of critical elder law information in community-based locations, seniors in one of Maryland’s largest counties are better prepared to handle the legal issues that accompany the art of gracefully growing older.

Lisa Muscara is Director of Volunteer Services for the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland.


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Publications : Bar Bulletin: March, 2005

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