Portland seniors take action to help others

Maura (not her real name), returned to Portland in dire straits. An 83-year-old American citizen, she had been living in Mexico until a couple convinced her to sell everything and travel throughout the world. The con team promised Maura they would take care of her for the rest of her life. Instead, they deserted her as soon as they’d run through most of her money. She managed to find the American Embassy in Mexico, which helped her get back to Portland, the last place she had called home.

She arrived with only a birth certificate, a canceled passport, and a change of clothes. Although she had a small bank account, without Oregon ID or a Social Security card, she could not access her funds.

Adult Protective Services referred her to Elders in Action, a nonprofit that helps adults over age 60. Elders in Action assigned the case to Jon Springer, a volunteer in the organization’s Personal Advocate Services program, and he sprung into action.

“Maura was not a typical case,” Jon says. “Not only did she have a very complex situation, but she also had a number of issues she needed help with.”

Elders in Action has been helping seniors since 1968 when it was established as the Portland/Multnomah Commission on Aging. In 1997, the Commission, a panel that advises local officials on programs and policies for older adults, established Elders in Action, a private non-profit agency. The Commission, still active, is housed at the Elders in Action office.

In addition to its Personal Advocate Services, Elders in Action has a Speakers Bureau that provides informational workshops to seniors, and an Elder Friendly Business Certification program that helps establishments promote their products and services to people over age 60.

The agency has more than 150 volunteers working in its programs. Many are retired themselves.

Says Jon, “I retired in 2004 and by the time I began volunteering with Elders in 2007, I had done a lot of things I wanted to do in retirement. I felt the time had come to volunteer.” After reading about Elders in Action in the Oregonian, he called to find out more.

“There was a training coming up. I signed up and became a personal advocate.” Volunteers in this program help older adults with housing, Social Security and Medicare benefits, neighbor and creditor disputes, consumer issues, and legal solutions such as restraining orders.

Jon has personally worked with more than a dozen clients to date. Some have had easy problems to resolve, like a woman with a neighbor whose hedge was growing up the side of her garage. She was afraid it would block her gutters, so Jon asked the neighbor to lower the hedges, which the neighbor gladly did.

Other clients face serious financial difficulties, like the cancer patient who had lawsuits filed against him and his wife for his huge medical debts. Jon helped the couple qualify for financial aid and showed them how to apply.

“It took about six months, but we contacted all providers and as a result, 100 percent of their bills are now paid.”

Satisfaction is Jon’s reward.

“I try to help them solve their problems and give them some skills so they can cope and manage similar problems on their own. For example, the cancer patient now knows how to deal with medical bills. For me, there’s an intrinsic satisfaction in solving problems, whether they are my problems or someone else’s.”

Jon is quick to point out that many other people also volunteer and help clients as much as he does.

“You can read a lot of great success stories by going to the Elders in Action website,” he says.
Between July 1, 2007 and June 30, 2008, Elders in Action helped more than 2,045 individuals experiencing problems with health care, housing, crime or abuse. During the same time period, Personal Advocate volunteers recouped $484,672 for seniors for problems ranging from fraud to wrongful billing.

Elders in Action has a staff of nine, led by Executive Director Vicki Hersen. The agency relies on grants and donations from both corporations and individuals. It also has contracts with Multnomah County and the city of Portland for specific services for the elderly.

Jon credits Elders in Action’s staff with providing the resources volunteers need to help their clients.

“When you get a case, the staff has done a lot of screening, but once you get into a case, you always find another twist or level. They keep you focused on the issue the client called about.

The staff is incredibly supportive and helps you through every step of the way.”

Thanks to Jon’s efforts, Maura is situated in housing that suits her and she’s rebuilding her life.

“She’s going to group counseling and joined a knitting class. She’s establishing her social circle and hopes to eventually move into her own apartment.”

Happily, such positive results typify the work Elders in Action does every day of the week for Portland’s honored citizens.

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