By Allison Jones, Legal Aid Society
Seniors are among the most vulnerable members of our communities. Particularly for those who have mobility limitations or don’t have family members living nearby, some of the unavoidable tasks of everyday life can become overwhelming.
As we celebrate Grandparents’ Day this Sept. 11, it’s a good time to turn our attention to the experiences of older adults in our communities — and how a recent shift to online-based services has made it even more challenging for them to manage essential benefits. As an attorney in the Nashville office at Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands, I work frequently with seniors who encounter issues accessing public benefits like TennCare, SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) and Social Security. We want older members of our community to know that we’re here to assist them in getting the help they need.
Effects of the pandemic
While it was sometimes challenging even before 2020 to connect with government agencies like TennCare, the Social Security Administration and Tennessee Department of Human Services, one result of the pandemic is that many of these agencies’ staff members are now working remotely or on hybrid schedules. Though some offices have reopened to the public, agencies have increasingly encouraged people to interact with representatives online rather than in person.
But for older folks who aren’t familiar with the internet, don’t have the vision and dexterity needed to navigate around an agency’s website, or don’t have internet access to begin with, this new way of doing things can be very difficult. Along the same lines, increasingly common security features like 2-step verification often require cellphones, which are less commonly used among seniors. Even for agency offices that have resumed in-person assistance, it can be hard for some seniors travel to the office, and to stand in lines to be seen. It might not be medically possible for them to wait for hours.
One way in which Legal Aid Society can help is to advocate directly with the state or federal agencies, when access to the office or the internet presents an barrier for an older adult. We understand how frustrating it can be when benefits are cut off or reduced, sometimes without a clear explanation. Often, seniors who try to resolve an issue alone find themselves giving up because the process is too convoluted or confusing. We’re often able to cut through red tape and get to the heart of a problem, fixing it much more quickly than clients could accomplish by themselves.
We’re also able to help clients make sure they’re getting the maximum amount of benefits that they’re eligible for. If a person has unpaid medical bills, for instance, we can use those to increase their SNAP benefit. We’re glad to assist with gathering necessary information and submitting it on a client’s behalf if they are unable to do so. Depending on a client’s circumstances, we can do much of our work over the phone. However, if necessary, we can also visit a client at home, as we understand how hard it can be to have physical limitations.
For seniors who are able, we do encourage them to first try calling the agency in question, although call wait times can be lengthy and there are some limitations to what can be handled over the phone. The more information a client can bring to us from the agency, the better advice and assistance we can provide.
Many seniors rely solely on Social Security income to cover living expenses, which means there can be dire consequences if their benefits are interrupted. Frequently, senior clients will come to us because their payments have stopped or been reduced, leaving them with no money to pay essential monthly expenses like rent.
In cases that involve both benefits and housing, we have a very productive partnership with our housing unit at Legal Aid Society. In one recent example, a 79-year-old client lost all her income when her husband passed away. His bank account was closed and her Social Security payments, which had been deposited to that account, were returned to the U.S. Treasury Department. She had been trying to fix the problem for a few months unsuccessfully before contacting us, at which point she was on the verge of being evicted. We managed to get the eviction postponed by securing assistance through the Metro Action HOPE Program, which was established to offer rental relief during the pandemic. We then were able to restore our client’s Social Security payments, including the retroactive payments she had lost.
Where to start
If you need assistance accessing benefits that you’re entitled to, or are having problems resolving a problem involving existing benefits, please contact us at Legal Aid Society at 800-238-1443 or visit one of our upcoming free legal clinics.
About Legal Aid Society
Allison Jones is a staff attorney in the Nashville office of Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands, practicing in the areas of health, public benefits and special education. Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands advocates for fairness and justice under the law. The nonprofit law firm offers free civil legal representation and educational programs to help people in its region receive justice, protect their well-being and support opportunities to overcome poverty. It serves 48 counties from offices in Clarksville, Columbia, Cookeville, Gallatin, Murfreesboro, Nashville, Oak Ridge and Tullahoma. Legal Aid Society is funded in part by United Way. Learn more at www.las.org or by following the firm on Facebook.