Legal Help and the Elderly

Bringing legal help to the Elderly…

Elliot Lake boasts of its ever-increasing senior population. This fact has been confirmed by Statistics Canada, which has concluded that the city of Elliot Lake is the “oldest” city, population wise, in North America. Delivering and receiving critical information from and to our Elderly population is an especially challenging exercise for anyone attempting to lend services or respond to the needs of the elderly. This is especially true of the Legal Clinic. Natural impediments resulting from age related realities make the provision of legal services both challenging and time consuming.

These natural impediments may be technological, physiological or psychological or a combination of all three. Regardless of the origins, the end result requires an elevated level of skill, attention, patience and time. While the abilities of the elderly vary among seniors, most experience some type of physical or sociological deterioration, which include:

1. Hearing loss, which may interfere with both speech and comprehension. By age 65 half of the population may experience some hearing loss.

2. Diminished vision and mobility, which may create obstacles to simple tasks like dialing a phone, following phone prompts, and writing or reading notes.

3. Strokes, accents, or even ill fitting dentures, may complicate even the simplest of communications.

4. Memory loss, dementia, and age-related attention disorders, which may cause someone to lose the thread of a conversation, forget to ask important questions, become frustrated and angry, repeat themselves, or even fall asleep in the course of a conversation.

5. Loneliness and isolation, which cause the elderly to engage in lengthy discussions. For those living alone, any outside human contact can become an essential connection to the community.

6. Social or cultural norms, which may lead the elderly to avoid discussing problems directly.


Frustrating as these issues are to the elderly, these problems also create challenges for those seeking to assist them. In the work of the Legal Clinic, these realities significantly increase the time that is necessary to lend assistance. Clinic staff have learned much over the past twenty years as they strive to serve clients in this Retirement Community. In our view, there are four essential ingredients:

1. Anyone who communicates with an elderly person must remember that patience is an essential tool. We have discovered that patience means listening carefully, empathetically, not rushing or jumping to conclusions, never finishing the senior’s sentences for them. It means reducing distractions and keeping track of what is said during the conversation/interview. Patience also means not interrupting; the smallest interruption may prevent the senior from completing or returning to their original thought.

2. Effective communication and dialogue relies on careful, thoughtful speech. This involves not only taking more time, speaking slowly, and enunciating clearly, but also paying special attention to vocal quality. If an elderly client is agitated, their voice may rise in pitch and volume. Unconsciously mirroring that tone or being drawn into the caller’s agitation can quickly turn a helpful interview into a confrontation.

3. Eliciting complete and accurate information from an older person may special probing skills. Questions may need to be asked, rephrased and asked again, and the answers paraphrased and reconfirmed. Clients also need to be queried about lingering questions or concerns prior to ending the interview.

4. While respect is an essential component of all client service, with an older client additional measures of respect should be included such as using titles such as Dr., Mr. and Mrs. This is particularly important. At the same time, we are careful to avoid patronizing language or tone. This can be detected quickly by seniors and can undermine any attempts to assist them. With all the modern communication devices at our disposal today, the assurance of perfect understanding and a guarantee of good communication remain elusive.

If an elderly person has difficulty communicating, following instructions, or answering questions, their lack of compliance is not intentional, nor does it indicate a lack of intelligence. We have learned that if both parties to the exchange observe a few measures of planning, patience and respect, the interview/conversation can be a conduit for a productive and satisfying exchange of information. Agencies who are experiencing a higher than usual senior based clientele must accept the challenges associated with the need for extra time and increased sensitivity when bringing services to this group. This coupled with cultivating the expertise needed to productively engage this segment of our community will lead to greater success in meeting their needs.