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Spotlight on pro bono: Older adults need legal help

By Grant Nyhammer, ISBA Delivery of Legal Services Committee

Most of us look forward to retirement as we envision ourselves having unlimited time and resources to do what we love most. Most of us, however, do not anticipate that we all become more vulnerable with the inevitable physical and mental decline in our abilities as we age. We also may not realize that retirement presents a bevy of new legal issues such as:

  • Being improperly denial of public benefits such as Social Security, Medicare, Energy Assistance, etc.;
  • Having problems receiving pensions and retirement benefits;
  • Being a victim of elder abuse from caregivers;
  • Being a victim of financial exploitation;
  • Prematurely being placed in a nursing home;
  • Losing employment income because age discrimination;
  • Needing advance directives for health care and property as we decline;
  • Needing a guardianship or defending an unwanted guardianship;
  • Planning for probate; and
  • Losing housing.

These legal issues combined with living on fixed incomes makes older adults particularly in need of pro bono legal services.

There is good news as the legal community is no alone in shouldering the burden of helping older adults with legal matters. In order to facilitate services to older adults the federal government has set up an aging network for services under the Older Americans Act (OAA). The OAA, which is nearly 50 years old, created local ‘area agencies on aging’ (AAAs) that are responsible for implementing a systematic plan for providing services to older adults. One of the core functions that AAAs fund is legal services prioritized for low-income older adults.

The OAA sets up a local AAAs nationwide so that the entire United States is covered. In Illinois, there are thirteen non-profit AAAs which cover all of our 102 counties (the City of Chicago has its own AAA). Illinois AAAs contract with various organizations to provide legal assistance such as legal service providers, legal clinics, law firms, etc. Demand, however, far exceeds the resources available and many older adults basic needs remain unmet because they are unable to get legal help. If you are interested in helping alleviate this problem, I encourage you to contact your local AAA for more information.

Grant Nyhammer is Executive Director & General Counsel of the Northwestern Illinois Area Agency on Aging in Rockford and can be reached at

Posted on September 30, 2013 by Chris Bonjean
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