Inside The Senior Alliance: Neighborhood Legal Services with Tracey Rowans (Ep 1.27)

In this episode, Jason Maciejewski, CEO of The Senior Alliance talks to Tracey Rowans, staff attorney at Neighborhood Legal Services. They discuss some of the services Neighborhood Legal Services offers including the Elder Law and Advocacy Center, preparing and organizing documents, such as estate planning, power of attorney, last will and testaments, and making sure that everything is covered so that seniors can live with dignity and the care that they want. And what services are available to help family members when their seniors are resistant to getting things in order.

Produced by The Senior Alliance and Blazing Kiss Media


Jason Maciejewski (00:00):

Welcome to Inside The Senior Alliance, a podcast exploring resources and issues in the field of aging. I’m Jason Maciejewski, CEO of the Senior Alliance, the area Agency on Aging, serving Western and Southern Wayne County. Joining me today is Tracey Rowans, staff attorney at Neighborhood Legal Services. Tracey, welcome to the podcast.

Tracey Rowans (00:17):

Thank you. Thank you so much.

Jason Maciejewski (00:19):

Could you please tell us about Neighborhood Legal Services and what the services are that you offer to older adults and caregivers in our community?

Tracey Rowans (00:26):

Certainly. First, I want to explain that Neighborhood Legal Services is a wonderful organization that’s existed since 1966, and their goals really provide legal services to those who couldn’t afford legal services and to remove barriers that would prevent individuals from reaching their full potential. So what we do, our goal is to provide the self-determination and safety to Wayne County residents, their caregivers, kinship caregivers, and those individuals who are over 60 by providing no cost civil legal services. We focus on education, advice and representation regarding specifically the unique legal issues and challenges that affect older adults.

Jason Maciejewski (01:18):

So Tracey, one of those unique situations that older adults might find themselves in is kinship care which you just mentioned, could you share with our listeners what kinship caregiving is and how you support people that might find themselves in that situation?

Tracey Rowans (01:33):

Certainly. And what we try to do is to provide education through either outreaches or direct communication if they contact our organization where we can assist an individual who is over 60, but who is in, in the case of a kinship caregiver, they are providing care not to another person like a spouse or a friend, but they’re actually providing care to a family member, perhaps a grandchild or even an adult child who is suffering, you know, from a disabling disease. So what we like to do, especially since these caregivers are, you know, as we say they’re over 60, they’re dealing with possibly legal matters. We explain to them how they can access legal documents that will allow them, give them the legal authority to act on behalf of that person who they’re related to, and navigate how they can make decisions for that individual legally.

Jason Maciejewski (02:39):

And you work with these individuals in terms of maybe some legal documents that establish that custodial relationship?

Tracey Rowans (02:48):

In the case of kinship caregivers, we do, and it’s two ways, and I want to just broaden the picture a little bit here because one of the goals that Elder Law & Advocacy Center can provide is information about the legal documents that everyone should have, everyone over the age of 18, the legal documents, they should have to remain independent and to make sure that if there ever is a time when they are unable to make financial or medical healthcare decisions for themselves, that they have these documents, which would prevent them from having to take more elaborate measures through the court process. So what we like to expose people to is the fact that they can continue to do this with a legal doc, that they can, while they are able to, they have legal capacity themselves to make decisions, who they want to assist them financially or medical healthcare, when that individual may not be able to make those decisions themselves.

Tracey Rowans (03:59):

So that is where we go out through a program that we have every month called First Tuesdays, where we explain to people what are the legal documents that they should have that will allow them to have their needs met by the person who they choose, the person who will have been in touch and understand that person’s wishes and possibly beliefs. Someone who can make healthcare or end of life decisions when the person who you know is going to sign the document is no longer able to. And that is true for individuals over 60 who are just managing themselves and looking toward their future and how they will be treated, but also to the kinship caregivers. We want kinship caregivers to know that perhaps a lot of kinship caregivers who we work with, again, are over 60. Once you hit 60, the chances are greater that an accident could occur, something could happen.

Tracey Rowans (05:12):

So what we like kinship caregivers, since they are taking authority for another family member in their home, is that the caregiver themselves have the necessary paperwork so that if something happens to them, they are able to provide information that will be used possibly by a court to determine who the next contingent or the successor caregiver will be. I think people are familiar with certain legal terms, such as, or processes known as guardianships or conservatorships. And this is what is required if an individual becomes incapacitated and hasn’t yet prepared or seen an attorney to have a power of attorney for healthcare or a durable power of attorney for finance created. So if a person doesn’t have legal documents by the time they become incapacitated, then it becomes necessary for either a friend of the family or a relative to step in and petition the probate court in the county in which the individual lives to be able to make those legal decisions for them regarding their finances or regarding their healthcare.

Jason Maciejewski (06:42):

Organizing those legal documents that you mentioned is a way that people can ensure that their wishes are honored, that surviving family members won’t be left with a really difficult legal situation to deal with and disputes to untangle between family members. What are the important legal documents that older adults should gather, prepare, and, and have completed?

Tracey Rowans (07:06):

The documents that we recommend are a durable power of attorney for finance, which is a document that, again, if you go to an attorney, you are the principal because you are gonna sign that document. You get to appoint the person who you trust most to make your financial decisions. The second document that everyone should have is a power of attorney for healthcare. And that allows the person who is having the document drafted, and in this case we refer to that person as the patient. The patient is allowed to appoint the person they want to make the medical healthcare decisions and end of life decisions, and also residential placement decisions. The third document that people could consider is the living will. A living will is not a legal document in the state of Michigan. It is in other states, but not yet in Michigan. But it is a persuasive document that can be used, an individual who doesn’t have a trusted person to nominate someone who, you know, their children have either predeceased them, they’ve moved out of perhaps the country, and there isn’t anyone here that they particularly trust to make those medical care decisions.

Tracey Rowans (08:31):

And yet that individual feels very strongly about things like end of life treatment and how they will be treated. A living will is a document that codifies an individual’s direction, how they want to be treated at the end of their life, what measures they wish medical professionals to take on their behalf, and those that they don’t want to be taken. A fourth document would be, and I think a lot of people have heard about this, if they watch television, and that’s a last will and testament. Last will and testament is control after death. So the individual who would be, you know, seeking an attorney to prepare these documents in advance because they want to make sure that after they’ve died, that their belongings, that their stuff is distributed pursuant to their wishes to whom they want, and that the person who they trust has legal authority to make those decision, access their bank accounts and distribute pursuant to their wishes.

Tracey Rowans (09:42):

And this document, the last will and testament, is exceedingly helpful to streamline distribution after someone’s death. Sadly, there is sometimes division or derision within families, and there’s the question of, no mom wanted me to have that, or dad wanted me to have that. If a person is able to incorporate their ideas about who they want their belongings and their assets to go to, that can all be packaged together in a legal document so that after they pass their wishes will be carried out by the person who they want and in the manner in which they decided and put in this will and last testament.

Jason Maciejewski (10:35):

Tracey, you mentioned the family conflicts that might come into play if people don’t have these documents in place, but there are many situations where family members are resistant to getting these documents in order. Do you have any suggestions in how people can talk about the need to have these items in place with maybe family members who just are resistant to the idea?

Tracey Rowans (10:57):

Yes, this is a common issue, either talking about a time in someone’s an individual’s life when they may not be able to make their own decisions. It’s not something that’s easily discussed. It’s not something that that person wants to think about. And it’s very difficult and sometimes very emotional for family members, or friends. I think timing is very important. You have to be in the right place to have a discussion like this. You want to focus on exactly what elder laws goals are, which is that it’s that individual, it’s that older person’s individual, that family member who maybe their health isn’t so great, and it looks like there’s gonna be a need for someone to, to just assist them in the future, to have that conversation. And from the point of view that talking about this so that your wishes are the wishes that are followed in the event that this ever happens, depending on how that conversation goes, if you have a particularly obstinate, stubborn person, and there are those, they just want to do things their way and they don’t want to have this discussion now, but sometimes you have to say, you know what, if it’s a mother, a father, or a friend, listen, I want to tell you what the reality is.

Tracey Rowans (12:23):

I want to tell you that if something happens to you, an accident, something that you cannot control, I cannot control. Do you want me or do you want this other person, whoever you know, the conversation is leaning toward regarding becoming a legal decision maker, you want to let them believe and understand because it’s true that it’s their wishes, okay? And that in the event that there is an accident, they’re not going to be able to have this input. And the family member is not going to be able to say, well, you know, here we are at the hospital and my mother is attached to an IV and she is being medicated and cannot give informed consent. I need to make this decision. I’ve talked to my mother, I know what her wishes are. I want to be able to make this decision. And the hospital’s going to say, well, your sister out there wants to make the decision.

Tracey Rowans (13:24):

Who has legal authority? Does anyone have the agent under medical healthcare? And you can explain to the person who is not feeling the need to commit to a legal document or dictating who’s going to care for them. You can remind them that if something like this happens and their documents aren’t in order, that it will require a court proceeding. And I hate to say use fear factors, but guardianships and conservatorships are very valuable for the people who they’re designed for, which is people who do not have family members or friends who are able, willing, and capable of assisting in cases such as that. Again, the better route are those durable power of attorney for finance and the medical healthcare for power of attorney. The conversation with the, I love you very much, or I care about you very much, or I respect you very much, but if something happens to you, I would have to petition the court or someone else would have to petition the court for the legal authority to become your guardian or your conservator to manage your issues.

Tracey Rowans (14:37):

And in the worst case scenario, the decision is always up to the judge. So it is possible in a contested matter where family members argue about who should be making the decisions. If that is not sidelined by, you know, the individual themself during their lifetime by preparing documents that appoint someone with legal authority, if they don’t have legal documents, the court is going to decide. And it is possible that a neutral third party will be appointed by the court. Having these conversations can be very difficult, can be very long. And you have to be patient and understanding because remember, we’re talking about our independence and sometimes as a caregiver, and I know I was my mother’s caregiver, it’s hard not to want to push this decision upon an older person because you know, this is in their best interest. But until such time as they are incapacitated, it’s their decision.

Tracey Rowans (15:47):

And I just want to talk about one helpful alternative. Okay? Families do have trouble addressing this. One thing that is available through Elder Law and Advocacy Center, our organization, is access to Elder Mediation. And elder mediation is provided by a sister company, shall we say, part of Neighborhood Legal Services as well called Great Lakes Mediation. And what happens here is a neutral third party is invited into the discussion with the older individual, with a family member who’s worried about them, who wants them to talk to an attorney about documents, think about the future, what happens after they die, the necessity for a last will and testament. So these kinds of discussions, if they are too difficult or if you’ve had several of them and it hasn’t gone well, you can think about calling Great Lakes Legal Mediation at our offices. You contact them the same way you contact Elder Law and Advocacy. You can also find Great Lakes legal through neighborhood Legal Services website, et cetera. But this is an organization, it is a professional third party mediator who can bring up these questions, make sure that the older individual, that their words are important, seriously and strongly suggesting that legal documents are in order and in the older person’s best interest.

Jason Maciejewski (17:26):

Tracey, could you share with us how people can find the resources at Neighborhood Legal Services? Where, what websites can they look at? What phone number can they call?

Tracey Rowans (17:35):

Sure, they can call our direct phone number at Elder Law and Advocacy Center. Our number is 1-313-937-8291. And that is the same number that you would call if you’re interested in registering for our first Tuesday seminar. And you’re interested perhaps in having legal documents drafted if it’s appropriate. Also I’m excited to say that we will very soon have our own website, so that is something that we will be announcing and something for people to look forward to in the next month or so. Currently, though, you can find us on the Elder Law and Advocacy Center Facebook page. Also Best Place Neighborhood Legal Services of Michigan. They have a wonderful website. We are under the program section Elder Law and Advocacy Center, and our contact number is there.

Jason Maciejewski (18:37):

Tracey, thanks for joining us today on Inside the Senior Alliance.

Tracey Rowans (18:40):

Thank you so much.

Jason Maciejewski (18:42):

If you have questions about services or programs The Senior Alliance offers, you can call us at 1-800-815-1112 or email us at Information about our agency or the programs and services we offer can be found on our website at On Facebook, we can be located by searching for The Senior Alliance. And finally, our Twitter handle is @AAA1C. I’m Jason Maciejewski. Thank you for listening to this episode of Inside the Senior Alliance.

Speaker 3 (19:13):

Inside the Senior Alliance is a production of The Senior Alliance and Blazing Kiss.

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