Diane Dimond: Elder guardianships: A shameful ‘racket’
Betty Winstanley is a well-spoken, elegant and wealthy 94-year-old widow. And as she told me from her room at the Masonic Village retirement facility in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, “I feel like I am in prison. My life is a living hell.”
Welcome to America’s twisted world of court-appointed guardianships for the elderly.
Quick backstory: Betty and her husband, Robert, were married for 72 years. They had three children, Richard, David and Betsy. For nearly seven years, the couple occupied a “lovely” apartment at the Masonic Village retirement home in Elizabethtown.
In early 2014, Betty, who uses a rolling walker to get around, said she felt faint. Seeing no staff nearby she lowered herself to the ground. “They said I fell,” she told me. “But that is a bad, bad word around here. Once you fall they decide you aren’t capable of taking care of yourself anymore.” Betty was sent to the medical section of the compound for rehabilitation after a small fracture was found.
Robert, a doctor of ophthalmology with a keen interest in aerospace medicine, took ill shortly after and was also transferred to the medical unit. Betty stayed with him but longed to return to her apartment.
“They wouldn’t let me,” Betty said. Labeled as a resident who could no longer live independently, Betty was transferred to a smaller room where nurses could keep better track of her. Sadly, on June 16, 2014, Robert died of heart failure.
Within three weeks, the eldest Winstanley son, Richard, was in court claiming his mother needed a guardian to make decisions for her. Betty believes Richard was angry because she recently transferred her power of attorney from him to her other two children.
At this crucial initial hearing, Betty was without her hearing aids because the home collected them “for cleaning” and had not returned them. Still deep in grief, Betty was unable to understand the proceeding and her court-appointed lawyer never told her that she had the right to speak before the judge made a decision.
On July 17, 2014, Common Pleas Judge Jay J. Hoberg of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, heard testimony from one doctor and one nurse from Masonic Village, and ruled that Betty was “a totally incapacitated person.” This, despite the fact that two independent neuropsychologists who tested Betty declared she was of sound mind.
Depressed? Understandably, yes. Affected by dementia or Alzheimer’s disease? No.
Those conclusions didn’t seem to matter. Betty was appointed a guardian — two, in fact — and immediately felt cut off from the rest of the world. Her family visits were curbed, her checkbook was taken and she was restricted from leaving the Village campus. Her guardian, Patricia Maisano, did not even let her leave the campus at Christmas.
“They make me feel like a piece of protoplasm on a deserted island,” Betty told me. “I just want to move to an assisted living home in Annapolis, Maryland, so I can be near David and Betsy. I have no family around here except Richard, who rarely comes to visit.”
Interestingly, Betty is not allowed to pay for her own lawyer from her $1.9 million estate funds. Her son David, a flight attendant, told the court he has spent his life’s savings trying to help his mother escape the grasp of a legal system that is supposed to help the elderly.
Groups fighting to change contested guardianship laws call the system a “nationwide racket,” wherein an all-powerful judge appoints a guardian who, in turn, can hire a local attorney, any number of merchants and service people and, as in Betty’s case, the elder has no idea how their money is being spent. Betty only knows that her monthly apartment cost was about $3,300 and now she’s charged $8,500 for her smaller, skilled-nursing-care room.
In the words of Dr. Sam Sugar, an advocate for elders in Florida, “The mantra of the guardianship system is litigate, medicate and take the estate.”
I’ve read hundreds of pages of court transcripts and documents about Betty’s case, and while there is much more to her story — including brothers who no longer speak and the prolonged focus in court on son David, who reportedly upset Betty in the past by yelling in frustration — there is really only one important takeaway.
Betty wants to leave the place where her husband died and live closer to her family in Maryland. The reason she can’t move? Pennsylvania won’t let her go, despite a state law that says a guardian must take into account what the ward wants. Judge Hoberg, the ultimate arbiter, has allowed Betty’s limbo to drag on for 18 months.
“I get the impression they just plan to wait her out until she dies,” Betty’s attorney, Candace Beckett, told me. “I’ve watched my client decline during this prolonged fight. … She is like a flower who’s dying on the vine.” There is an appeal pending but that will take months to be heard.
This is what happens in America when the kids can’t — or won’t — agree on what’s best for Mom. Shameful, on many levels.