Contra Costa Senior Legal Services: A Port in the Storm for Seniors

“My daughter is schizophrenic and lives with us.  She goes out every day to panhandle with her friends who are homeless.  My husband is on hospice, and I am nearly 80.  We are scared to death that she doesn’t understand social distancing and is going to bring the virus home.  What do I do?”

This question from a recent client reflected the novel challenges faced by seniors in a world with COVID-19.  Here at Contra Costa Senior Legal Services, our staff has been fielding questions like this for over 44 years.  While our mission —protecting the rights of older residents of our County — hasn’t changed, certainly the nature of the problems facing our clients has.  As a result, our practice has changed as well.  The COVID-19 pandemic may be the most transformative moment of our lifetimes: it has affected our institutions, our neighborhoods and our families.  Contra Costa Senior Legal Services is mindful of the unique role we play as lawyers advocating for older adults, who are especially vulnerable during this health crisis.  We are rapidly adapting to meet the challenge.

During the pandemic, we have seen a significant increase in calls for help with the cross-over legal issues of housing and elder abuse, as exemplified by the client with the schizophrenic daughter.  The COVID-19 crisis was not alone in creating these problems; housing instability, lack of resources and mental health disabilities challenged many in our county long before the COVID-19 scourge.  But the crisis has amplified the weaknesses in our safety net.  In this instance, as with many of our senior clients, an adult child is living in the home.  Sometimes this is for the convenience of the senior, but many times it is not.  Children or other family members may experience unemployment, substance abuse or mental health disabilities and turn to their elderly parents for refuge.  But the aging process itself makes these scenarios fraught—as seniors become more vulnerable due to physical and mental decline, the demands of caring for their impaired children grow.

Compounding the issue is the complexity of the legal duties and responsibilities that arise when one invites another—even a family member—into the home.  Has the person become a tenant?  Must the Unlawful Detainer process be used to remove them?  Many seniors are ill-prepared to step into the unintended role of “landlord,” and they lack the resources to hire an attorney to help them navigate the pitfalls. When the problem is severe and the safety of the client is at stake, the senior can sometimes use the remedy of an Elder Abuse Restraining Order to remove an abusive family member.  But that, too, has its drawbacks.  Many older adults are loath to evict a loved one, even in the face of harm to themselves.  In other cases, a client realizes that the family member will become homeless and there are no other resources for their often indigent, impaired child.  Under these circumstances, the choice can be heart-wrenching.

The urgent issues of housing and health for seniors have never been more pronounced than during the current pandemic.  There are a cascading array of new regulations limiting the ability of landlords to evict tenants except for health and safety reasons.  Their admirable goal is to keep people housed.  But what of the adult child who, due to cognitive impairment, does not understand that she may be exposing her parents to illness and even death?  What to do in extended households in which some members refuse to abide by the social distancing orders?  These are issues that confront many older adults in Contra Costa.

Thankfully, Contra Costa Senior Legal Services is available to help, providing free legal assistance to those 60 years of age and over.  We have staff attorneys who specialize in the legal issues that affect low-income seniors such as preservation of housing, income maintenance and debtor’s rights.  We leverage our impact with the invaluable help of pro bono volunteers, many of whom are members of the Contra Costa County Bar Association.  Working together with these devoted pro bono attorneys, last year CCSLS helped nearly 1,100 seniors. CCSLS reached thousands more people last year to educate them about the ever-evolving array of scams targeting the elderly and to inform them of their legal rights.  CCSLS is also a trusted resource for reliable referrals and accurate information. In these uncertain times, it is comforting to know that some traditions continue, including the honorable tradition of attorney pro bono work.  With the assistance of these dedicated professionals, CCSLS will continue to protect and advocate for our Contra Costa seniors.  To learn more, including details about pro bono opportunities with our organization, please visit our website: www.ccsls.org.

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