Aging Well: Service helps low-income older adults tackle legal issues

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Sherri Ferree, coordinator of Northwest Colorado Legal Services, will talk about the organization's services and how to apply, noon Wednesday during Wellness Wednesdays at the American Legion in Craig. For more information, call 871-7676.

Northwest Colorado Legal Services hosts a free Ask a Lawyer night from 6 to 8 p.m. the second Thursday in June, August, October and December at the Colorado Mountain College Library in Steamboat Springs.

Ferree hosts an "application intake" night to help residents apply for the program's legal services, from 5:30 to 6:30 the first Monday of every month at the Moffat County Library in Craig.

For more information about Northwest Colorado Legal Services call 276-2161 or 1-800-521-6968. Information about legal issues affecting older adults and others is available at ColoradoLegalServices.org.

An elderly woman, bombarded by credit offers, incurs overwhelming debt, and creditors threaten legal action.

An older man receives a large bill for dental work he is not sure he received, while another elderly individual just needs help getting advance directives in place.

Unfortunately, these individuals, and many other older adults, have little income to pursue the legal help they need.

Northwest Colorado Legal Services is an important resource for low-income older adults and others contending with legal problems or questions.

Tucked away in a small office in the old hospital building in Hayden, the organization is one of 15 programs operating under the nonprofit Colorado Legal Services, which provides free legal advice and representation to qualified individuals involved in civil matters.

Adults 60 and older, unlike their younger counterparts, do not have to financially qualify for the program. This may be because many older adults already are vulnerable because of ailing health - including cognitive problems affecting judgment, social isolation and other challenges.

"They normally don't have anywhere else to turn," said Sherri Ferree, coordinator of Northwest Colorado Legal Services. "The majority of seniors we work with are on extremely limited incomes and may be intimidated to seek assistance directly."

Ferree will discuss program services and legal issues concerning older adults, Wednesday during Wellness Wednesdays in Craig.

Ferree works with about 26 local attorneys who provide legal advice or represent low income residents of Routt and Moffat counties. She also assists clients in Jackson, Rio Blanco and Grand counties.

Attorneys advise program clients at no charge and provide additional legal work or representation at a significantly reduced rate. Currently, Northwest Colorado Legal Services compensates attorneys about $60 an hour compared to typical attorney rates of $200 to $300, Ferree said.

The program, which is funded by local and state sources, does not charge clients any attorney fees, though they are usually responsible for fees to file court documents.

In 2006, about 14 percent of Colorado Legal Services cases involved individuals 60 and older, according to the organization's annual report for that year.

Locally, Ferree receives about four calls a month concerning older adults. Often, clients' problems or questions are fairly simple and can be handled with quick advice. Other situations may require further investigation to determine if there is a legal issue and how to proceed.

Priority is given to cases involving public benefits, such as Medicaid and Medicare, housing, consumer issues and advance directives, such as living wills.

Most older clients come to Ferree hoping to resolve a consumer problem or collect a debt from a family member or person that has taken advantage of them financially.

Consumer issues may involve individuals who get in over their heads in debt because they are not fully cognizant of how various forms of credit work. In other situations, older adults receive bills for services they think were either low quality or never happened.

Sometimes all that's needed is a kind voice and patience to help older clients understand their situation while feeling comfortable in seeking help, Ferree said.

"We just need to make sure seniors know there is a place to go for assistance," she said.

In addition to holding office hours Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Ferree conducts workshops on legal issues of interest. She also organizes Ask a Lawyer night every other month in Steamboat Springs and holds a session each month in Craig to help individuals fill out the application for services. For more information, call 276-2161.

Residents interested in learning more about a specific civil legal issue can refer to the user-friendly Colorado Legal Services Web site, www.coloradolegalservices.org or look for a copy of the Northwest Colorado Services Legal Aid Handbook at local libraries.

- Tamera Manzanares writes for the Aging Well program and can be reached at tammarie74@yahoo.com. Aging Well, a division of Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, is a community-based program of healthy aging for adults ages 50 and older. For more information or to view past articles, log onto www.agingwelltoday.com or call 871-7676.

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