“I Care a Lot”, a popular Netflix movie, portrays a ruthless guardian who preys on seniors without family for her own financial gain. Although it is a sensationalized movie, it sheds light on the need for all seniors, but especially those without the support of family, to plan in advance for their future.
In the movie, the main character, Marla, targets a rich elderly woman who did not need a guardian or conservator, in order to financially abuse her. Marla is in cahoots with a corrupt doctor who provides false medical evidence to support the need for guardianship and conservatorship. Marla also works with a crooked assisted living facility administrator to keep the woman sedated, locked in a secure unit, without her phone and isolated. In reality, this scenario is extremely far-fetched.
In Massachusetts, the court provides some protections to prevent abuse. The court can appoint a guardian for someone who has a clinically diagnosed condition who is no longer able to care for himself or herself. A conservator is appointed to handle the incapacitated person’s financial affairs. This must be supported by medical evidence. The individual is given notice of the proceedings and given the opportunity to object. The court requires the conservator to file an inventory of assets and annual accountings. If available a suitable family member is often appointed. However, for those without suitable family, a stranger, usually an attorney, is appointed to make decisions about where they should live, what medical care they should receive, end of life care, what should happen to their personal belongings, their finances, and their home. The guardian and conservator is paid from the incapacitated person’s funds, with court approval of the bill.
As an elder law attorney, practicing for over 20 years, I have served as guardian and conservator for a number of people. In each case, the need for guardianship or conservatorship was genuine. I was appointed as guardian for one man, who was found crying on the front steps of his apartment building for hours, after he was released from the hospital, and unable to care for himself. He needed help and was diagnosed with dementia, but lived alone and didn’t have family. The hospital petitioned the court to appoint me as guardian and conservator. When I helped him move into an assisted living facility, he was relieved. I was accountable to the court for my actions and required to file an inventory and annual accountings, along with obtaining a surety bond.
Planning ahead is critical to avoid the need for guardianship or conservatorship. I recommend that all seniors consider taking the following four steps to take control of their future and avoid a scenario where a stranger could be appointed to make decisions for you.
1. Meet with an elder law attorney to execute estate planning documents: Estate planning allows you to retain control by deciding who should help you if you ever become incapacitated. It makes it extremely difficult for the court to appoint a stranger as your guardian or conservator.
An estate plan should include the following:
· The Durable Power of Attorney gives you the ability to designate someone to manage your financial affairs in the event that you are no longer able to do so.
· The Health Care Proxy gives you the ability to designate someone to make medical decisions for you in the event that you are unable to communicate your own wishes.
· The Will gives you the ability to designate who will receive your property after your death and who will manage your estate. In some cases, Trusts are beneficial to protect your privacy and avoid probate.
2. Devise a safety plan. If you are a solo senior, living alone, you need to make sure that you have a plan in place to ensure you are safe. For seniors that are comfortable using smart phones, there are several apps that require you to check in periodically to verify that you are alright. If you don’t respond, the apps will alert an emergency contact and in some cases contact the police to request a “wellness check”. For seniors who don’t use smartphones or apps, the traditional “Lifeline” system, which involves wearing a necklace or monitor which can detect a fall, may be a better option. A safety plan is critical in making sure that if you fell or were injured, while home alone, that you would get help.
3. Consider community housing: Many of my clients have lived in their home for a very long time and can’t imagine leaving. However, living alone can be isolating and lonely. Here are a few options for seniors that are looking for a community:
· Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs) offer a wonderful option for seniors interested in a community where they can age in place. Many seniors in their 70s think they are too young for this. Moving into an independent living apartment while you are still active and engaged gives you a chance to make friends, enjoy an easier lifestyle with at least one meal per day, and not have to worry about maintenance. As you age if you need more care, these communities are ready to provide what you need.
· Senior Housing: For some CCRCs may be too expensive. In Massachusetts, most towns offer affordable apartments for seniors who meet certain financial requirements. Usually, the rent will be one third of your income. Most senior housing apartments provide some social support and activities for the residents. If you need more care in the future, and meet the financial requirements, MassHealth offers excellent programs for seniors that wish to stay living in the community, but need more care.
4. Make sure you have “Aging Allies”: “Aging Allies” are people that are ready to help you if you should need more care. They are your safety net. Who qualifies as an aging ally? An elder law attorney, friend, doctor, financial advisor, accountant, geriatric care manager, trusted neighbor, senior center staff, staff at your senior living community/apartment, relatives who may live out of town, or anyone you can trust. Ideally you would have at least two or three aging allies. Checks and balances help protect you from being taken advantage of. It is important to try to maintain contact with your aging allies at least every six months.
Visit SoloAllies.com to find professionals near you who support seniors who are aging alone. If you live in the Boston area, at Senior Solutions, we are aging allies and we have relationships with many professionals that are ready to help. If you don’t have anyone to count on, we can help you establish your aging allies. Watching a movie like “I Care A Lot” can be thought provoking. Planning in advance is critical to make sure that the unlikely scenario in this movie, won’t ever happen to you. We can help you ensure that you wishes will be honored and look forward to your future without fear.
Senior Solutions, Attorneys at Law, is an Elder Law and Estate Planning law firm, serving the Greater Boston, Massachusetts area. Our Aging Allies and Safety Net programs are designed to help solo seniors. We are ready to help you plan. Take the first step and contact us in any of the following ways: Phone: 617-489-5900 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or use this link to set up a free consultation: https://seniorsolutions.as.me/FreeConsult.