“Guardianship” Often Fails Poor Seniors. Is There a Different Way?

When Patricia Cassidy was at her lowest point, she had just been evicted, was overwhelmed with mounting medical bills, and was suffering from a traumatic brain injury that left her emotionally unable to cope with everyday tasks. Then her despair turned to fear as she found herself before a local judge, who mandated that she would have to cede control over her financial and medical affairs to a guardian — an organization that the court would task with managing many components of her life on her behalf.

“I went to the hearing, and it was very, very scary for me,” she recalled in a recent interview. At the time, her therapist and rheumatologist had petitioned the court to place her in a special public guardianship program for people without other means of support from family or friends. But Cassidy, a 59-year-old domestic abuse survivor facing several chronic ailments, feared losing her independence. “I was afraid of guardians,” she said. “I felt that they were going to come in and take over my life and take over everything I had and get rid of it all.”

Five years later, Cassidy said that what she most feared about guardianship — losing control — hasn’t happened. Instead, she’s stayed independent, living in a Brooklyn apartment her case worker helped secure. She now sees her guardianship, administered by the nonprofit advocacy group Vera Institute of Justice, as “just a part of my life.” But her program is part of a small, unconventional support network for extremely vulnerable seniors that aims to safeguard their lives without taking them over. For hundreds of thousands of other seniors, guardianship is an ethical gray zone, operating at the heart of a question that increasingly haunts an aging nation: When am I no longer able to care for myself?

Aging Gaps

Guardianship is one of the most ethically fraught aspects of the elder care system, hinging on the most sensitive questions about personal liberty, medical responsibility and kinship. And it all starts, for better or worse, with a judge’s decree. A court appoints a guardian when a senior is deemed unable to live independently, usually after a hearing process that reviews an individual’s medical needs or physical, intellectual, mental or psychological disabilities, and determines that guardianship is appropriate. Similar to adoption, the guardian is in most cases a relative or friend who petitions for them. But people with fewer resources might end up in the care of a public or private agency, which is tasked with managing issues like medical treatment, financial planning and end-of-life care.

Overall, about 1.5 million people nationwide are in some form of guardianship, more than three-quarters of them involving a relative. Seniors without friends or relatives who are willing to help manage their affairs may enter the care of a private guardian (who is generally arranged by family or friends and compensated directly), if they have the financial resources to do so. Elderly people who don’t have enough funds to finance their own guardians can enter a separate system known as public or community guardianship, provided by a nonprofit or government agency. But as a whole, court-appointed guardianships lack central regulation or monitoring. Advocates fear that as the Baby Boom generation ages and guardianship becomes more widespread, so will the potential for abuse or neglect.

The Vera Institute’s The Guardianship Project (TGP) is trying to get courts and communities to reimagine guardianship, both through research and advocacy and through running its own guardianship model, which now serves about 180 people across New York, including Cassidy. On a national level, TGP’s research on guardianship programs in several states suggests the system is letting many seniors fall through the cracks: Surveys of judges and other court personnel, along with professional guardians, indicate that many courts are overstretched; there is little monitoring of cases, and judges often lack expertise for handling complex cases of seniors with serious health and economic issues. Meanwhile, court-appointed guardians are in many cases attorneys, who might have no expertise in caregiving, and respondents reported a lack of guardians available with skills like social work and nursing.

“Basically, what the whole story is showing is that there’s a population of elderly, disabled and/or poor people that are largely invisible and largely ignored,” said TGP Director Kimberly George.

Meanwhile, public wariness of guardianship is growing: Media reports and government audits have revealed many cases plagued by dysfunctional bureaucracy and a pattern of elder abuse. In professional private guardianships, which often take in seniors who have some assets to pay for services, scandals have erupted in cases of neglect, exploitation or abuse of elderly people. But the poorest seniors are even more vulnerable, since their fate relies completely on the courts and public welfare systems. Poor, socially isolated seniors with complex care needs often find themselves assigned to a public or community guardian that is financed by public funds, but without adequate resources for care and legal services. According to Peter Strauss, an elder law attorney and professor at New York Law School, when funding is arbitrary and inconsistent, guardians, public or private are frustrated by “underfunding, short staff, and then they get overwhelmed with the number of cases that they can’t handle.”

“There’s a gaping hole in the system for folks who don’t have money, but who need help and don’t have anybody [who] can step in to pay their bills, make health care decisions and the like,” said Bernard Krooks, an elder law attorney who handles guardianship cases in New York. Although public guardianship programs could play a critical role for the most marginalized seniors, Krooks told Truthout, “The reality is, there has not been a funding mechanism in New York State to make this happen.”

Keeping Elders at Home

TGP’s model seeks to serve as a different kind of last resort, aiming to provide intensive services for seniors in economic hardship, with no family or friends available to serve as guardians. Funded by New York’s Office of Court Administration and other public and philanthropic funds, TGP serves clients across a range of settings, including residential care facilities, but aims to keep clients in their communities. Each client with a “wraparound team” that includes lawyers and other support staff, with specialists in managing public benefits, finances and housing. About half of the clients live at or below the federal poverty line, and half are people of color. About 60 percent of clients are living in their communities, while others live in residential institutions like nursing homes.

TGP’s multidisciplinary program intends to knit together different strands of the social infrastructure to help people avoid nursing homes and jails. If a client with mental health problems suffers a breakdown and gets arrested, TGP can provide legal representation to secure their release from jail and help connect them to a long-term treatment program that fits their needs. TGP can also support undocumented seniors by helping them obtain medical care and other services while avoiding immigration authorities and federal law that curtails non-citizens’ access to aid.

Until recently, Cassidy hardly fit the stereotype of an “incapacitated” elder. Earlier in her life, she had worked in public relation and museum curation, but over the years, her health deteriorated due to various chronic ailments and domestic abuse. Then in her mid-fifties, she was living on her own — just not very well. Her brain injury often triggered emotional outbursts; basic tasks like a visit to the bank could spiral into an angry breakdown. “I was very overwhelmed, and then therefore not able to even operate on the simplest level,” she said. Cassidy’s vulnerability was aggravated by estrangement from family members. “It was like I became an orphan at 50,” she said.

Her therapist and rheumatologist encouraged her to enter into the guardianship as a way of getting her life under control. A TGP case worker and other staff have helped her sort out her finances and secure a new apartment with a special housing subsidy based on her medical condition. While Cassidy is capable of making her own treatment decisions, her guardian also acts as an interlocutor. A conversation with a doctor can leave her “mentally fatigued,” she adds, but TGP staff “are there with me, and they’re talking to the doctor … then afterwards if they need to, [they] explain it to me five times — the doctor is not going to explain anything to you five times — [so that] I’m sure that it’s a good decision that’s being made.”

TGP works with individuals in residential institutions, but also helps them move back into their communities whenever possible. As the report explains, many clients become “stuck” in the medical system, “languishing needlessly in a hospital or nursing home,” unable to be discharged “because no one will take on the challenges of transitioning him or her back to their homes or to a less-restrictive setting with proper oversight.” Many guardians, George said, particularly those ill-prepared to deal with complex, high-needs clients, might be tempted to place a senior in a nursing home as an “easier” solution — eliminating the need for the guardian to worry about housing, food or managing the client’s bills.

When TGP steps in, the team prepares for a client’s return home by taking care of tasks like settling rent arrears with the landlord, or planning end-of-life care — services that the client would never be able to arrange while bedridden in a crowded rehab center. If a client’s condition deteriorates to the point that some form of institutionalization, such as placement in a nursing home, appears necessary, TGP would work to place them in the least restrictive setting, according to the study, perhaps seeking out a local facility “with staff who speak a client’s primary language and access to religious services and culturally familiar foods.”

Despite its personalized approach, a recent cost-analysis found that TGP’s budget saved its roughly 160 to 180 clients collectively about $3 million in annual Medicaid costs, primarily by avoiding placements in nursing homes.

The Vera Institute’s study suggests other counties and states can use a similar holistic approach to public guardianship. On the policy level, TGP’s study calls for an expansion of public guardianship nationwide — with additional funding, comprehensive monitoring of guardians and service providers, and enhanced regulatory standards, including a commitment to placing people in the least restrictive setting, and a staff-client ratio of 1 to 20 to ensure adequate resources and oversight. Overall, a more human-centered public guardianship program could enable the most vulnerable seniors to live more independently and stay close to their communities.

Safeguarding Elder Rights

Still TGP, with its limited capacity, is not itself a solution for the guardianship crisis. Some disability rights advocates criticize the concept of guardianship in general, viewing it as incompatible with the principle of independent living. They prefer alternative legal arrangements like “supported decision-making,” in which social service providers provide guidance for people on medical and financial decisions while still leaving them legally in charge of their affairs.

Meanwhile, progressive elder law advocates are also gravitating toward alternatives to guardianship that support independence whenever feasible. Alison Herschel, director of Michigan Elder Justice Initiative, says that while guardianship is necessary for some individuals, “we believe there are far too many guardianships and far too many cases that should have been resolved by utilizing less restrictive alternatives.”

The Vera Institute’s study urges court administrators to implement better training so courts can screen cases so people can opt for less restrictive options like supported decision-making. Instead of appointing a guardian for a senior with severe dementia, for example, a judge could arrange for a sibling to gain power of attorney to aid with medical or legal decisions, and provide a home health aide. Even when guardianship is strictly a last resort, the court process can be a framework for meeting a senior’s needs for both care and personal dignity, and providing support without threatening self-determination.

For Cassidy, the TGP guardianship model is not just about getting the right services, but regaining a firm sense of both her abilities and limits. Her guardian hasn’t taken over her life, as she had once feared; instead, it’s a stabilizing presence.

If she ever needs her case worker, she knows who to call. “I carry their card with me all the time.”