Q&A: Deborah Herzel, Staff Attorney with Legal Aid of East Tennessee and "Duncan Award" Winner

A staff attorney with Legal Aid of East Tennessee, Deborah Herzel earned this year's "Duncan Award" for embodying the legacy of the late U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Sr., in the "professional" category. The award will be presented by Senior Citizens Information and Referral Service (SCIRS) May 2.

Do you have any relatives who would be particularly proud of this?

I was the primary caregiver for my late mother as she got older, and both of us had to struggle just to get information about resources available to older adults. I'm sure she would be glad that our shared determination led me to focus my practice on trying to make it easier for my clients to get the help they need.

Have the key elder issues altered in the past 5-10 years?

There are not enough affordable options to meet the needs of older adults who do not need nursing home care, but do need assistance at home or in an affordable assisted living facility. In addition, while the downturn in the economy has affected everyone, every catastrophe creates an opportunity for people who are unscrupulous; so seniors were particularly hard hit by mortgage-lending abuses. Many people who worked hard to pay off their homes fell victim to con artists who convinced them to take out a mortgage to pay off credit cards or other unsecured debt; and in many cases the terms of those mortgages were misrepresented. We see a lot of seniors who are facing foreclosure because they got adjustable rate mortgages with artificially low starting rates or loans with balloon payments they couldn't pay.

Who are our vulnerable adults?

We are all susceptible to scams, but older adults tend to be targeted more often. First, they are more likely to be at home when a dishonest "home-improvement" contractor drops by to scare them into putting on a new roof they don't need. Second, their retirement incomes don't keep pace with inflation; so they are more likely to need additional cash and fall victim to credit card offers and other easy-money solutions that are inevitably misleading. Third, the disreputable retailers who target young people often convince them to get a cosigner. It's hard for grandma to turn down her grandson when he really, really needs that motorcycle. Frequently, the grandchild doesn't pay; and grandma winds up with the bill.

What's your top priority as a legal aid attorney?

My first objective is to try to make legal services accessible to those who have the greatest difficulty accessing legal assistance. Throughout our service area, older adults have special problems accessing legal services. Many are homebound and unable to travel to a lawyer's office. That's why we routinely make "house calls." Many clients living in rural areas simply can't afford to buy gas to come downtown; and our clients who become unable to drive have to rely on public transportation, which does not exist in some of the counties we serve. Many older adults are simply afraid to go somewhere that is unfamiliar. That is why we go to senior centers and other safe venues to meet with individual clients and to make presentations about issues that are important to older adults.

How can average citizens recognize the needs of our senior citizens, and help them seek help?

We all need to be alert and pay attention to our neighbors and people in our churches. Older adults suffer from an alarmingly high rate of depression, which is often mistaken for a normal symptom of aging. The more contact you have with the older adults in your life, the more likely you will be to notice subtle changes. Family members need to pay particular attention to changes in the spending habits of their older relatives. A lot of deliveries to the home might mean that the senior has discovered shopping via television or the Internet, often out of boredom or loneliness. Seeing construction workers at the home can mean your neighbor is having legitimate work done, or it can mean that they have fallen victim to a scam. If you notice that your unemployed teenaged nephew is driving a new car, it might be worth finding out if his grandfather is paying for it. Tennessee law requires that anyone who is aware of elder abuse or exploitation must report it to Adult Protective Services through the Department of Human Services. Senior Citizens Information and Referral Service (SCIRS) answers questions about services and problems concerning older citizens of Knoxville and Knox County and provides referrals to appropriate agencies.

SCIRS provides information about services for people age 60+ and those with disabilities who live in Knoxville or Knox County. To access services, call 865-546-6262, or drop by the John T. O'Connor Senior Center (611 Winona St.).