John J. Ford, Esq., exudes passion for his work in elder services law. John is the founder of the Elder Law Project at Northeast Justice Center (formerly Neighborhood Legal Services). He has dedicated the past fifty years to championing for elders, people with disabilities, and those of low income. For John Ford, this is a calling and he simply loves his work.
To honor his accomplishments, North Shore Elder Services (NSES) is inviting family, friends, and professional associates to a special 50th Anniversary Celebration on Thursday, October 25, 2018 at the Boston Peabody Marriott.
We caught up with John in his always-busy schedule to find out more about his calling and the work he has been committed to all these years.
- How did you choose elder law?
“Elder law really found me. After my first year of law school at Boston University in June of 1968, I dropped into the legal aid office in South Boston, which was three blocks from my home, to ask if they could use a volunteer. They could and they did. In my second year of law school, I was granted a work/study program in the same legal aid office where I worked 12-15 paid hours a week. During these years, I was greatly inspired by the lawyers I worked for. I guess you could say, ‘I got the bug.’ I was exposed to their leadership and advocacy on behalf of elders.”
“Upon graduation in 1970, I got a fellowship for two years. Then, in 1972, I came to Neighborhood Legal Services in Lynn and I have been here ever since.”
“I started the Elder Law Project in 1977, which was established from grants under the Older Americans’ Act. I had a tendency towards enjoying serving elders and the resources were at hand so that is how it came about.”
“My early years of legal service had a wide practice. We called it ‘foot priorities’ which meant that whatever problem someone walked in with became the priority. We wound up limiting ourselves to public benefits, income maintenance, preservation of housing, and access to health care. I developed a specialty in long term care and Medicaid and Medicare.”
- After fifty years of service, what are some significant changes you have seen in elder law?
“I have seen a lot of changes. Courts, and in particular probate courts, are more responsive to litigants and counsel. They are more ‘consumer litigant oriented’ now.”
“There are now thousands less in nursing homes than ten years ago. That has come about because of how the housing of elders has changed. The advent of assisted living residences, support for people in their homes, and elderly housing developments with programs to provide services have all contributed to this change. People are finding alternatives to nursing homes.” (See the recent NY Times article…. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/28/health/nursing-homes-occupancy.html)
“Another important development was same sex couples. There has been recognition of their rights where they have all the advantages of a heterosexual couple. There has been significant reform and improvement in a short time.”
“We also reformed Guardianship laws substantially. I am proud to say I was a part of it. We tried in the 1990s but were unable to accomplish it until 2009 when we got significant reforms in terms of how courts respond to disabled people and their needs. We still have a long way to go. Right now, we are trying to get a public guardian agency in Massachusetts. There are 3,000 – 5,000 people who have no one – no support, no family – and need a guardian. They do not come to our attention until in an emergency of a hospital or in a housing court being evicted for reasons related to their impairment. We are hoping that by the end of this session, Legislature has established a Commission to study the problems of guardianship. Right now, it is an unmet need in Massachusetts.”
“Another relatively new alternative to guardianship is something called ‘supported decision making.’ Paul Lanzikos (Director of NSES) and I are in the forefront of developing a statute to afford a disabled person an alternative guardianship by simply making a contract with his or her supporters whereby an agreement is signed. The supporter agrees they are going to help but will not make the decisions for the person.”
- What are the most typical issues that you deal with?
“Housing is a main concern. We are protecting people from foreclosure, exploitation, abuse, etc. We work to keep people in their homes.”
“Access to healthcare is another important concern. Medicare does not cover the cost of long-term care. It is either through private pay, at a cost of about $12,000/month, or through Medicaid, (MA Health). Mass Health is 40% of the state budget and long-term care is a significant portion of that. As a result, we have a program that has set up roadblocks and obstacles for people to become eligible. Medicaid was ignoring trust laws for the better part of ten years. There was a victory in January of this year in that Medicaid can no longer trump trust law. Now Medicaid has to follow trust laws.”
“We have a grant under the Older Americans’ Act from the ASAPs (Area Services Access Point) in our territory; North Shore Elders, Greater Lynn Senior Services, Elder Services of Merrimack Valley, and SeniorCare. Legal issues are referred to us. We get many referrals from Adult Protective Services.”
- Are there any recommendations you would give to families or individuals as they prepare for their elder years?
“For anyone over the age of eighteen, the essential documents should be in place; Health Care Proxy, Durable Power of Attorney, and a Will. If you have your affairs in order, it is easier for people to come to your assistance.”
- How did North Shore Elder Services become the beneficiary of your Anniversary Celebration?
“Our relationship began in 1977 when we created the Elder Law Project in a joint program with the area Aging Services Access Points (ASAPs). I was the Director of the program. Recently I was at a meeting with Paul Lanzikos (Director of NSES) and North Shore Elder Services had just taken over guardianship services from another agency. Paul talked about needing to establish a fund to help victims of abuse or neglect who needed some guardianship – funds that could be enough to solve a problem for someone. My idea was to organize a celebration of my fifty years in legal services and to use that as a fundraiser for elders in crisis at NSES.”
At seventy-five years of age, John is going strong with no immediate plans to retire. He would very much like to update his handbook, “A Handbook for Guardians of Nursing Home Residents in MA,” http://www.massguardianshipassociation.org/pdf/FINALHandbookforGuardians.pdf which was written in 2004. He also hopes to see a public Guardianship program in place in Massachusetts before he retires.
“Looking back over the fifty years, it’s been a very rewarding experience. They say that if you love your work, you don’t ever work a day in your life. As for those working in the human services field, this is life-affirming work that benefits victimized people. We offset the bad guys.”
John’s 50th Anniversary Celebration is open to the public with benefits going to North Shore Elder Services. Come and join in the fun as we honor this truly special man. See our webpage at https://nselder.org/event/johnford/ to purchase tickets.