Elderly want to maintain independence; Dustin Foster speaks on Elderlaw at SBM annual meeting

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

Attorneys must learn how to best help their older clients, especially as a rapidly aging population navigates the effects of a dismal economy, a statewide expert on elderlaw said last Thursday.

Speaking to a crowd at the State Bar of Michigan's annual meeting in Dearborn, Dustin Foster said that elder abuse, financial exploitation and earlier diagnosis of dementia are some of the problems facing Michigan's fastest growing segment of the population, baby boomers 60 and older.

The 80-and-older set is projected to grow 120 percent over the next decade, he said. And there are now about 75 million baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) in the United States, representing about 29 percent of the population.

Foster said the elderly may feel they're losing control of their environment and their independence

''Oftentimes when they come into your office, they may have self-esteem issues you'll be dealing with,'' said Foster, an assistant professor and Director of the Cooley Law School's Estate Planning Clinic. ''They want you to be able to help them maintain their independence.''

The first step is to identify your client, he said, noting that a senior may be accompanied by a relative, friend, or professional. Answering the client question determines who is owed information, confidentiality, and loyalty.

Then the attorney must access the client's capacity to enter into a contract.

''Do they know the legal effect of what they're about to do?'' he asked.

Foster gave an overview of benefits seniors may be eligible for, including RSDI, the Retirement, Survivors, and Disability Insurance program administered by the social security administration. Most people simply call this ''social security.'' RSDI benefits are paid to workers, their dependents and their survivors. There is not an asset or income test to qualify.

Other benefits may include Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a federal program administered by the Social Security Administration often referred to as a ''needs based'' program because there is both an income and asset test to qualify for benefits.

He also discussed Medicare, the federal entitlement health insurance program available to retired individuals age 65 or older, or for those who have received Social Security Disability for 24 months.

And he detailed the benefits available through Medicaid, the program funded by both the federal and state government that provides health insurance to those with limited income and resources.

Foster urged attorneys to watch for signs of elder abuse, which includes physical abuse; emotional abuse; sexual abuse; financial exploitation; neglect; abandonment; and self-neglect, the behavior of an elderly person that threatens his/her own health or safety.

Before his speech, Foster told the Legal News that he hoped the room of attorneys would leave with the basic skills needed to deal with the growing aging population.

''The most pressing issue now, because of the dip in the economy, is being aware of what potential benefits they might be eligible for,'' he said.

And that can be difficult, he said, because state regulations surrounding Medicaid change every three to four months.

''The federal laws stay consistent, but the states change their regulations on a regular basis,'' he said, noting that states fine-tune regulations to capture certain areas of planning or eligibility.

Foster agreed that some people think the government purposefully makes it complicated to fill out the necessary forms to claim benefits.

''But if proper planning is done and the attorney is able to recognize the proper needs, the benefits are still able to be obtained,'' he said.

Published: Thu, Oct 6, 2011