Aging US population reaches new milestones: Need for legal services for older adults dramatically increasing

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Maine recently hit a crucial milestone, which many were unaware of: A fifth of the state’s population is over the age of sixty-five.  The World Bank has defined this milestone as a phenomenon called “super-aged.”  This milestone makes Maine the state with the oldest population in the United States; however, Maine is just the “tip of the spear,” as stated by a reporter at The Washington Post quoting Ai-jen Poo, the co-director of Caring Across Generations.

Maine will not be the only state to hit this crucial aging milestone.  Fifteen other states in the United States will also be “super-aged” by 2026, according to Fitch Ratings.  Over a dozen more will join those states by 2030.

Today, middle-aged adults outnumber people eighteen years or younger, but the United States as a whole will reach a new milestone in 2035 according to the United States Census Bureau Projects: People age sixty-five and older are expected to number 78 million, while children under the age of eighteen will number roughly 77 million.  The report goes further to predict one-in-four Americans will be sixty-five years old or older,the number of people eighty-five years old and older will triple, and the country will add a half-million centenarians by 2060.

As the demographics of the United States shift towards an older population, the amount of services for older adults will dramatically increase.  Over the past several decades, there has been a constant, steady increased need for services for the elderly population.  More specifically, one rapidly growing demand by the growing elderly population is the need for more attorneys who specialize in areas of the law plaguing older adults.

According to one study, research demonstrates that many older adults have low or minimal literacy in regards to financial, medical, legal, and health insurance. The caveat is that each of these become increasingly more important due to the risks older adults face in their day-to-day lives.  Careful planning by the elderly is required to ensure they receive maximum benefits from entitlements and services, and protection against discrimination, fraud, and financial pitfalls that may affect them both during their life, or their estate at death.

In addition to the national increase in the elderly population, older adults are living longer. According to one report from Stanford University, Americans have added nearly thirty years to their lives over the past 100 years.  However, about fifty percent of these Americans are not prepared to live or retire comfortably after the age of sixty-five.  Without specialized services tailored for older adults seeking to retire, those people will likely have to work long past the retirement age.

Older adults are also more likely to be victims of fraud than anyone else.  According to a 2016 study, people fifty years or older hold over eighty-three percent of the wealth in the United States.  This wealth makes older adults prime targets for scams that defraud them of their assets, which took a lifetime to amass.  A study out of New York estimates that older adults lose anywhere from $2.9 billion to $36 billion per year from financial exploitation and frauds.  Often times, older adults need help determining if something is a financial scam. The elderly can benefit from services that teach how to take preventative measures to avoid financial scams in the future, and how to obtain recourse against the fraudulent scammer.

The federal government recognized the need for increased services for older adults in 1965 when President Johnson signed into law the Older Americans Act of 1965.  The Act allows the federal government to distribute money to states to be used for supportive services for anyone over the age of sixty.  The Act led to the creation of legal services on the state and local level to help senior citizens, and, ultimately created the practice of elder law.

Elder law attorneys specialize in numerous areas of law that older adults often come into contact: estate planning, social security, Medicare, Medicaid planning, long-term care planning, employment discrimination, elder abuse, issues surrounding fraud, and grandparent visitation rights.  While elder law attorneys do not just practice one specific area of law, their services are specialized to serve older adults and the issues they face.

The American Bar Association interviewed Michael J. Amoruso, president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, who stated, “As the American population grays, the need for attorneys who understand the unique aspects of planning for the elderly and people with special needs will grow.”  According to Amoruso, the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys has seen a significant increase in membership in anticipation of this “boom.”

Even with a growing number of elder law attorneys, there are still not enough elder law attorneys to provide enough services to the growing elderly population in the coming decades or even the current population.  Older adults are susceptible to the Justice Gap, just like many other low-income Americans who cannot afford an attorney or qualify for certain legal aid programs.  According to the Legal Services Corporation, over eighty-six percent of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal assistance.  Older adults, who are sixty-five years or older, currently represent roughly ten percent (approximately 6.4 million) of all households who qualify as “low-come,” meaning those with income below 125% of the Federal Poverty Level. This number is expected to continue to grow in the coming years.

Roger Manus, a law professor at Campbell Law School, has over thirty years of experience successfully advocating for elders in North Carolina.  In an interview, Professor Manus expressed that as of today, there are not enough resources and attorneys to cover the Justice Gap.  He further explained while there has been funding from the federal government through the Older Americans Act of 1965, the funding distributed to state and local programs has remained relatively stagnant over the past decade.  As for state funding for elder programs, the North Carolina legislature has “really dropped the ball,” as expressed by Professor Manus. According to Professor Manus, state funding for elderly programs in North Carolina, such as “Resources for Seniors,” “North Carolina Meals on Wheels,” or “Legal Aid of North Carolina,” has been steadily decreasing, which makes the programs more and more reliant on stagnated federal funding.  Illustrating the severe lack of resources these programs have to offer to older adults in need, Professor Manus stated some of these programs have over 10,000 people on the waiting list to receive services—many of which will never get to ever receive those services.

Law schools across the nation have started responding to the growing need of attorneys who are literate in elder law. Many schools have begun starting to teach elder law classes and provide elder law clinics to enable students to learn how to successfully advocate for older adults.  Campbell Law School is among those law schools.  Campbell Law School’s Senior Law Clinic, directed by Roger Manus, was founded in 2010 for two primary purposes.  First, the clinic was created to serve the growing legal needs of low-income senior citizens in the greater Raleigh area.  The clinic accomplishes this goal by pairing up approved applicants with law students to solve complex legal issues.  Second, the clinic was to inspire and benefit the law students at Campbell, or “plant the seeds of advocacy amongst the students,” as stated by Professor Manus.  The clinic has successfully accomplished this goal by getting students close to the local ethical issues practicing attorneys are often faced with, enabling students to touch numerous areas of the law surrounding elder law, and building the community of elder law in the North Carolina and Wake County areas.

Law schools, nonprofit organizations, and government programs have been and continue to be beneficial to older adults; however, the elderly population is rapidly growing and the resources to provide legal services to that population are not.  If the issue is not addressed soon, the Justice Gap could dramatically grow causing more older adults to be at risk financially, medically, and legally.

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About Harrison Broadbent (7 Articles)
Harrison is a third-year student at Campbell School of Law and currently serves as an Associate Editor for the Campbell Law Observer. Originally from Wilmington, North Carolina, Harrison majored in political science and minored in sociology at N.C. State University. The summer after his first year in law school, Harrison interned at both the Supreme Court of North Carolina for the Honorable Senior Associate Justice Newby, and the McDonald Firm, PLLC in Wilmington, North Carolina. During his second year, Harrison interned at the Forrest Firm, LLC., served as the President of Christian Legal Society, and served as Dean of Delta Theta Phi Fraternity. During the summer of his 3L year, Harrison utilized the third-year practice rule by interning at the Wake County District Attorney’s Office. This fall, Harrison will intern at the United States Bankruptcy Court of the Eastern District of North Carolina for the Honorable Judge Warren. While at Campbell School of Law, Harrison earned his Masters in Trust and Wealth Management. He is interested in working in the public sector after graduating from school and taking the North Carolina BAR examination.
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