Profile: Canadian Centre for Elder Law National Director Krista James

The BC-based Canadian Centre for Elder Law is an organization that looks at the various ways the law affects the lives of seniors. SeniorsZen recently had an opportunity to talk to the executive director of the organization, Krista James, about the role they play in implementing changes in the law and also the ways seniors can become more savvy when it comes to legal issues.

SZ) What does the Canadian Centre for Elder Law do?

The Canadian Centre for Elder Law is Canada’s non-profit agency that is focused on the law and policy issues that impact us as we age. Our work is a mix of legal research. We try to better understand the law and how it affects us as older adults. We do law reform work, which means that we write, we do a lot of research, we talk to communities and experts and then write reports that make recommendations for how governments can improve their own laws, sometimes focused on Vancouver, sometimes focused on British Columbia, sometimes focused on the country and sometimes looking at a mix of both.

There is an education component to our work. We develop a range of educational tools to help people understand their rights and obligations under the law. That includes developing tools for seniors themselves. So, for example, we have a series of tools called Be a Savvy Senior; videos and factsheets to help seniors protect themselves against financial abuse and fraud. We also do public outreach around the law; talking to media and different communities about rights and obligations.

SZ) What do you wish that more seniors knew or were aware of when it comes to the law?

There is actually a lot of free legal stuff and I wish seniors had more knowledge of that so they could take advantage of those services.

Every time I speak to a community I let people know about the Elder Law clinic through Seniors First BC. There is a toll-free number you can call. You get free legal help and help with related problems, from welfare to housing to victim assistance. Seniors First BC isn’t the only thing, for example, the law students legal advice program have clinics all around BC. They are for people across ages. They are a great resource for seniors for getting free legal help.

You have your right to change your mind about stuff. A lot of times seniors run into situations of abuse in part because somehow it has been communicated to them that it is too late to change their mind. I will give you a good example of that – power of attorney – that is a legal instrument where you can give someone the power to make financial, property or legal related decision for you. While if you still have your mental faculties and you decide that person is not doing a good job, or you don’t trust them or they are not being nice to you, you can change your mind. You can rip up that document and draw up a new one naming someone that you trust more. I would encourage seniors, always when they feel like they are in a jam, ask that first question, get legal advice about can I change my mind.

Your rights don’t disappear because you are older. Sometimes I get this sense that older people are taught that when they get to a certain age, their children are in charge.  You can give authority to your children, but we don’t get stupid because we are older. We don’t stop knowing what we want just because we are older. Sometimes people get dementia and their cognitive abilities can be diminished but again just because you have dementia doesn’t mean you don’t have the legal right to make some or all of your decisions and the capacity to make them. So, every person is unique and every person’s experience of dementia or Alzheimer’s or any disease that affects cognition is going to be too. I encourage people to assume they have the right to make the decision. That is what the law says unless circumstances indicate otherwise.

SZ) Are there any upcoming projects that you are excited about and can share with us?

One of the projects I am most excited about these days is the collaboration with the Alzheimer’s Society of BC to look at issues of healthcare consent as they integrate with the experience of having dementia and ageing. For that project we are really looking at the question of; is the process of health care consent and so I mean when people are agreeing to or saying no to medications, health decisions, saying yes or no to treatments; are the practices in community and hospital and long-term care are they consistent with a pretty robust rights that we have under health care consent law.

We are going to be publishing a report that makes recommendations for change to the law possibly, if there are gaps; make recommendations for practice and policy change in all the different healthcare settings and also make recommendations on where the stakeholders need more education, knowledge in order to practice with a manner that is more consistent with law.

I am really excited about this issue because we will be focusing on people with dementia because we think there are more barriers here because, as I mentioned earlier, people are more likely to assume a person with dementia can’t make their own decisions or doesn’t have that right. But, also, healthcare consent affects us all. All of us at some point are lying in the hospital or the doctor’s office making decisions about medications, making decisions about treatment for someone that we love. I feel like it is a fundamental right what happens to our body and how we get cared for is so big.

I think there is real potential for positive change. I know that people in health care are really doing their best under challenging circumstances and I would like to support them in doing an even better job at respecting people’s rights to autonomy.

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