Today on National Grandparents Day I count myself lucky to be able to celebrate my amazing grandmother, who – at 101 years old – has seen tremendous changes in our society and world. I also count myself lucky to live close enough to be able to spend time with her – as do my teenaged daughters.
The origins of National Grandparents Day started in 1970 with Marian McQuade, a housewife in West Virginia. She hoped to persuade grandchildren to tap the wisdom and heritage their grandparents could provide. She also championed the cause of the lonely elderly living in nursing homes. After years of advocacy, in 1978 a congressional resolution declaring National Grandparents Day as the first Sunday after Labor Day was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter. Today, while I honor the many ways that my grandmother has influenced my life, I will also be thinking about the many older Californians who have not been as fortunate.
Over 390,000 Californians over the age of 65 live below the federal poverty level. Many of these seniors face a barrage of legal issues relating to access to health care, economic assistance benefits, housing, and food. They also have legal needs relating to consumer debt issues, advanced planning and wills, residential and nursing home care, and caregivers issues – whether they are raising grandchildren or caring for an aging partner or spouse. In fact, more than 116,000 people over 60 in California have primary responsibility for the care of their minor grandchildren. So on grandparents day, these older Californians are actually still handling the day-to-day responsibilities of parenting.
A 2011 study by the Legal Aid Association of California (LAAC) found that county agencies serving seniors reported that the most serious challenges to the safety and well-being of seniors are primarily legal issues, including: elder abuse (including consumer fraud targeting seniors), housing issues (including discrimination, home repair, affordable housing), and bankruptcy/debt. Elders who are LGBTQ, have limited English proficiency (LEP), or are low-income are particularly vulnerable and in need of legal assistance. Sadly, the LAAC study also reported that older Californians frequently are not aware that free legal help may be available to them and may wait to consult an attorney until their situation has become a crisis. OneJustice supports a statewide network of nonprofit legal organizations that provide critically important legal help to more than 35,000 low-income and vulnerable seniors each year.
Older Californians living in rural areas face unique barriers to accessing the legal help they need. “Growing old has never been easy. The difficulties are especially pronounced in rural America because, census data shows, the country’s most rapidly aging places are not the ones that people flock to in retirement, but rather the withering, remote places many of them flee. The elderly who remain — increasingly isolated and stranded — face an existence that is distinctively harder by virtue, or curse, of geography than life in cities and suburbs.” (The New York Times, For Elderly in Rural Areas, Times are distinctly Harder, December 10, 2009.) Despite the significant need, rural seniors have unique difficulties in finding help due to a lack of access to transportation, computer or internet access, language barriers, and geographic isolation. In addition, due to limited resources, the few legal services organizations that exist to serve rural parts of the state are responsible for large geographic regions without sufficient staff.
This is why so many of our Justice Bus trips focus on meeting the legal needs of older Californians living in rural and isolated areas. Our volunteer attorneys and law students travel hours by bus to set up traveling free legal clinics at senior centers, near medical clinics, in libraries and churches, and at senior assisted living facilities. These volunteers work with local nonprofits in our network to bring life-saving legal help directly to seniors in need. In isolated areas of counties like Napa, Tulare, and Mariposa, these Justice Bus clinics are often the only way older residents will have any access to legal assistance. This is also why we created the website LawHelpCalifornia.org and our Pinterest page to post free downloadable resources on legal topics like guardianship, advanced health care directives and simple wills, and elder abuse.
The official flower of Grandparents Day is forget-me-not. On this day when we celebrate the heritage and wisdom of our grandparents, let us also remember the hundreds of thousands of older Californians who are alone today – alone facing pressing legal problems relating to basic life necessities. By continuing to work together, we can build the resources needed to help them solve their legal problems.
What is YOUR favorite memory of time spent with a grandparent, or the most rewarding experience you have had helping a senior citizen?