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College Of Law, Falk College Bring Advance Directives Legal Support To Local Community
Research estimates that only one in three Americans has an advance directive, a number that is substantially lower among communities of color, those of lower socio-economic status, and lower levels of education. This semester, College of Law students in Professor Mary Helen McNeal’s Advance Directives in the Community course and Elder and Health Law Clinic (EHLC) gained hands-on experience educating local residents about the importance of planning for end-of-life care while helping them prepare advance directives in partnership with Falk College.
“Advance directives enable people to appoint a proxy to make decisions when they are no longer able to, and they lay out a person’s preferences for the care they want,” says McNeal, who directs the College of Law’s Elder and Health Law Clinic that she developed in 2008. Providing general practice legal assistance for those aged 60 and over with low or moderate incomes, the EHLC offers students the opportunity to represent clients with faculty guidance and oversight.
Earlier this year McNeal, Falk public health professor, Luvenia Cowart, and Maria T. Brown, assistant research professor in Falk College’s School of Social Work and faculty affiliate at Syracuse University’s Aging Studies Institute, identified ways to connect experiential learning for law students with an unmet need in the community. Cowart is the co-founder of the Genesis Health Project that aims to reduce health disparities and promote healthy lifestyles among African Americans in Syracuse. The African American Dementia Caregiver Support Project’s 12-Week Healthy Living Program is a Genesis Project that promotes health and wellness, including education about dementia caregiving, nutrition and physical fitness. A two-part seminar series on advance directives was a natural fit for the Genesis Project.
“Advance planning for medical decisions and preferences is never an easy conversation to have with loved ones, but it is a necessary and responsible thing to do,” explains Cowart. “The students from the College of Law, under Professor McNeal’s leadership, filled a significant void within our community.”
Prior to the community clinic, McNeal and the students met in small groups to discuss advance directives, relevant ethical issues, and how to structure the educational session and clinics. College of Law students Chris Baiamonte, Esther Chung, Cynthia Moore, and Caleb Williamson developed a comprehensive presentation on end-of-life issues and advance directives, which they presented to the Healthy Living participants. The students returned a week later to help nearly 25 participants complete individualized documents through one-on-one guidance.
“This collaborative project provided both a service to the community and a wonderful hands-on learning opportunity for the students, hopefully instilling in them the value of connecting with and contributing to our local communities,” says McNeal.
Student Cynthia Moore described this as “an invaluable experience, which gave me the opportunity to provide community education on complex issues and follow-up with one-on-one client counseling.”
Says student Esther Chung, “my experience with the advance directive project was an incredibly positive, reaffirming one. This project allowed me to step outside the confines of the school and expand my own role from scholar to educator, an important role in the legal field. Being able to fill that role in itself was valuable, but additionally I felt re-energized, humbled, and grateful for having had this opportunity, even for a brief moment, to share in this heart-warming and uplifting community.”
Participants expressed an overwhelming appreciation for the knowledge gained and the learning experience. Several participants explained the importance of having the seminars held in the community, making them available to everyone.
“I think this was a great learning experience for the students and opportunity to educate the community on legal issues. I am hopeful that we can continue to work with the Healthy Living Program to benefit community members and law students,” says McNeal.
In 2016, professors Cowart and Brown received a five-year, $500,000 grant from the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) to fund programming to deliver Alzheimer’s Disease and caregiving support to the African American community in Syracuse—including respite care and connections to community resources—as part of the Genesis Health Project. This initiative, led by Syracuse University’s Falk College, is part of the NYSDOH’s Alzheimer’s Disease Program, which implemented a $25 million strategy in 2015 to support people with Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementias and their caregivers.