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UB Law Professor Project Aims to Improve Seniors' Access to Services

By Rachel Cala

Release Date: December 7, 2012

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- To keep Buffalo's senior citizens healthy and active in the community, they must be able to live comfortably in their own homes.

Healthier elders can boost the morale of the community and keep it diverse. Access to services that aid in everyday life -- from making households safer and providing transportation to identifying those in need of financial assistance -- is imperative in helping the elderly remain in their homes.

Organizations like Canopy of Neighbors, a not-for-profit that serves the needs of senior citizens living independently, embrace and improve the lives of a specific community of elders in Buffalo, says University at Buffalo Law Professor Anthony H. Szczygiel.

Szczygiel, a recipient of a 2012-13 UB 2020 Civic Engagement and Public Policy Research Fellowship, is working with Canopy of Neighbors on a project to ensure that senior citizens have access to essential, life-enhancing community services.

Szczygiel's goals, as well as those of Canopy of Neighbors, are innovative, targeting a "village" in Buffalo and easing the burdens that accompany elderly life. The "village" is bounded by Main Street on the east, Richmond Avenue on the west, North Street on the South and Delaware Park Lake and Nottingham Terrace on the North.

The goal of the Canopy of Neighbors Public Benefits Screening Project is to bridge the gap between Buffalo elders in need and programs within the community that can accommodate those needs. Szczygiel's desire to make available "good programs that are underutilized" will help the elderly age in the community by bringing those services to them.

The most important goals of the project include identifying those disadvantaged by poverty and making sure they are not excluded from services based on their income, as well as effectively using data to the community's advantage.

With 30 years' experience in elder law and health law, Szczygiel has seen the gaps and weaknesses in accessibility of services for the elderly. The project's mission is to reassess the needs of the community as a whole to avoid these setbacks and ensure that individuals are getting the care they need.

"Canopy of Neighbors does not provide duplicate services, but they attempt to bridge a chasm of services that are not offered," Szczygiel says.

As a result, Canopy's collaboration with health care providers and other entities that offer helpful services promotes the project's growth. Szczygiel's role is a crucial component in the community's large network of efforts. Canopy is open to all community members within the village over 62 years of age; it recently implemented a membership system for those who cannot afford its services, but surveys reveal seniors with moderate income still need attention.

Szczygiel, his law students at UB and volunteers are able to focus on moderate-income households through their screening methods. The goal is to determine "who knows what;" more specifically, to see what information about assistance is available and for whom.

"If there is a barrier, we can help remove that barrier," says Szczygiel, who has been on the board of directors for Canopy since it began in 2011.

Szczygiel acknowledges that aging well for some moderate-income individuals depends on their eligibility for valuable programs like Medicare, Veteran Health Care and Food Stamps. The screening tool will identify eligible and ineligible individuals, and make it possible for those members of the community to seek help.

Census information and websites like https://www.mybenefits.ny.gov -- combined with the hands-on research of the clinic students and program's volunteers -- will bridge the gaps in information through the screening processes, Szczygiel says.

Another objective of his research that already is under way is a "source book."

"The sourcebook and the survey are a work in progress," says Szczygiel. To ensure the fast, effective, up-to-date use of data, the book will make access to information easier.

"It will be a detailed compendium of the authority for each public benefit program," he says. "The idea is to collect all the rules for each program in one place, so advocates can easily find the answer to questions and we can ensure that we are using the most authoritative and current rules."

The sourcebook will address the hurdle of thoroughly understanding the inner-workings of these programs.

"For the benefit screening project, it is essential that we understand the rules before we try to apply them to the many and varied circumstances of community members," he says.

Szczygiel adds that the sourcebook, along with the ongoing acquisition of data, will help advance the goals of the project.