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‘Eldercaring’ program serves the courts and Florida’s aging citizens

Senior Editor Regular News

‘Eldercaring’ program serves the courts and Florida’s aging citizens

Senior Editor

Fifth Circuit Judge Michelle Morley, a pioneer in a groundbreaking experiment called “eldercaring coordination,” says it’s doing more than protecting human dignity and boosting court efficiency.

Three years after pilot programs began targeting Florida seniors in high-conflict families, Morely says “eldercaring coordinators” are saving lives.

Quote “It’s been absolutely tremendous,” she says.

Morley describes the case of the gravely ill senior who was denied treatment while his warring adult children issued conflicting instructions to his doctors.

“Literally, the care had stopped and the person was deteriorating,” Morley said.

Bailiffs had to intervene five times in the emergency court hearing that followed, Morley said. Then, an eldercaring coordinator helped the family members reach détente.

“They ultimately came to an agreement on a care plan,” Morley said. “The judge said, literally, the man was deteriorating and eldercaring coordination saved his life.”

In 2016, Judge Morely was named co-chair, along with Linda Fieldstone, former family court services supervisor for the 11th Circuit, of a taskforce overseeing the pilot programs in the Fifth, Seventh, Ninth, 12th, 13th, 15th, 17th, and 18th circuits. Pilots are also underway in Idaho, Indiana, Ohio, and Minnesota.

So far, eldercaring coordinators, also known as “ECs” have been assigned to approximately 65 cases in Florida. Morely said she knows of only two eldercaring coordination cases that required further court action.

A recent review by the Florida Chapter of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts suggests the program, Fieldstone’s brainchild, is an overwhelming success.

“I would say that’s a very fair read,” Fieldstone said.

Under the pilot program, eldercaring coordinators are appointed by judges or magistrates or panels of attorneys who identify cases involving seniors with telltale signs of family strife. One of the biggest red flags is multiple motions in any given case.

Eldercaring coordinators have helped families work out visitation schedules that allow siblings who can’t be in the same room spend time separately with a parent, Morely said. Or they assure siblings that a late-in-life romance isn’t as predatory or age-inappropriate as it appears.

One eldercaring coordinator resolved multiple misundertandings by suggesting a hearing test, Fieldstone said.

In another show of the program’s success, two of Florida’s biggest health insurers provided grants to each of the pilot circuits to help offset the cost of eldercaring coordinators. None of the grant money has been used so far, largely because much of the pilot work has been done pro bono while Virginia Tech researchers gather data, Fieldstone said.

Eldercaring coordination should prove cost effective, Fieldstone and Morley say, because multiple parties can divide the EC fees.

At the three-year mark, one of the biggest frustrations has been judicial rotations, Morley said. When judges who have learned to rely on eldercaring coordination rotate into other divisions, their replacements are often unaware of or unfamiliar with the program.

“We’ve had a hard time getting the new judges on board because there wasn’t the same kind of launch that we had when the pilot sites were rolled out,” Morley said. “We need to have a runway for the new judges that are coming into that assignment to become familiar with eldercaring coordination and hopefully continue to use it.”

Fieldstone says the problem could be fixed if lawmakers write an eldercaring coordination statute and adopt the program statewide.

“It would be part of judicial training,” Fieldstone said.

Administrators in the First, Sixth, Eighth, and 11th circuits have expressed an interest in joining the pilot, more proof the program is catching on.

“In Florida, the next big milestone would be to have more circuits join in, and another eldercaring coordination training to replenish the circuits that already have the pilot sites, and to train the ECs for the new pilot sites,” Fieldstone said.

Meanwhile, the ABA’s National Aging and Law Conference will have an eldercaring coordination plenary session later this month in Alexandria, Virginia.

A single grim statistic reinforces the need for eldercaring coordination in Florida, Fieldstone says. In four cases designated for eldercaring coordination, the seniors passed away before the eldercaring coordination could begin.

“So part of our training for the judges is, don’t wait until it’s too late,” Fieldstone says. “The point is, there are, hands-down, according to the judges, fewer motions being filed, and the motions that did get filed were for legal instead of non-legal issues.”