Attendees of the ‘Health, justice and ageing’ symposium held in Sydney last week, heard of the expanding network of lawyers being embedded in health services across the country.
Health justice partnerships, as these arrangements are called, have the primary aim of helping older Australians address any legal challenges they face as they move through the healthcare system.
Older Australians are a particularly vulnerable population. They face ageism, they are often targets of abuse and exploitation, their health is often failing, and they may face difficulty finding housing.
Giving older people access to free legal help can help to preserve their dignity and autonomy, can protect them from elder abuse or have abuse stopped and remedied, can help them with housing and accessing government help, and assist with advanced care planning.
The symposium was put together by Health Justice Australia and the Older Persons Advocacy Network.
The symposium was facilitated by comedian Julie McCrossin, who asked attendees to speak about real life examples of the ways health justice partnerships operate, and how they have been able to help older people by providing them with access to free legal representation and advice.
In one example, a woman in an acute ward at St Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne, revealed to a social worker she was having problems with her son, who had mental health problems. With help from the free legal service available at the hospital, the woman was able to get in contact with her sister and sister in law to put appropriate substitute decision makers in place. These steps not only connected her with family support, they also helped protect her from falling victim to potential abuse.
After receiving the help she needed, the woman told the social worker, “I feel so much more settled now.”
In another situation, an older couple had been forced to live in their car in a friend’s garage. After selling their home, the couple gave some of their money to their son, and had moved into his home. The living arrangements didn’t work out, and the son eventually made his parents move out.
With the help of a free lawyer through a health justice network, the couple were helped to find new housing, and the matter went to court. After a stressful three-year battle, the couple were awarded a six-figure sum.
Professor Elizabeth Tobin-Tyler, Assistant Professor Family Medicine and Health Services, Brown University, presented on her research and 20 years worth of experience with partnerships between healthcare providers and legal professionals targeted at older people in the United States.
Prof Tobin-Tyler has recently published a report on her research in the area of health justice partnerships in the US and models for delivering health justice partnerships for older people.
Prof Tobin-Tyler’s research has found that 56 per cent of low income older adults experienced a legal problem in the last year. But only 19 per cent of low income older adults seek legal help.
(The figures are similar in Australia. According to Health Justice Australia, one-fifth of people in Australia experience three or more legal problems each year, yet one in five take no legal action.)
Prof Tobin-Tyler said using the internet to give older people legal help was often not going to be useful, as they may not have or know how to use a computer or smart phone.
She said social workers were “incredibly helpful” enabling older people to access the services they need.
She said lawyers can be part of the healthcare team that can give patients a “legal needs check-up”, and talk to them about things like accessing public benefits, advanced care planning, immigration matters, exploitation and abuse, or landlords violating laws around rental property.
Prof Tobin-Tyler said it was “wonderful to see the progression of the work in Australia”.
There are now more than 48 health justice partnerships in Australia organised through Health Justice Australia. Some of the locations include Bankstown Hospital, Sydney, the Legal service for older people, Melbourne, and the Women’s Resource and Engagement Network, Perth.