How an Ailing Parent Can Become a “Ward of the State”

Susan Baida - September 30, 2009 10:55 PM

I’m relieved to be home.  I just returned from a trip to California where we went to visit my grandfather.   He was in the hospital early September because he refused to eat and became dangerously weak.  He was released after a few days once his health improved and got his strength back.  Since he is 90 years old and has dementia, John and I thought we should pay him a visit while he is still lucid and can recognize us. 

The visit was emotionally exhausting and tense.  You see, the care of my grandfather since his diagnosis with dementia caused a deep rift in my family.  His 3 children fought bitterly for custody of him and ultimately my paternal uncle won conservatorship.  Conservatorship is when a judge decides that a person cannot take care of themselves and chooses a person or organization, the “conservator,” to be in charge of their care.

This all happened 3 years ago.  My grandfather was living independently in New York City until several incidents such as a major car accident, declining health, and going after my father with a knife made the family realize he could no longer live alone.  Begrudgingly, he sold his home of over 40 years and moved to California to live with my paternal aunt until another living arrangement could be made.

For a while, my grandfather seemed to be fine living with my aunt.  However, being fiercely independent, he grew restless and impatient as time passed.  His dementia also altered his personality every once in a while making him very irrational, nasty and sometimes physically violent.  He insisted on living on his own, having his own car and being free to go about his business.  On one occasion, he tried escaping by sneaking out the front gate of my aunt’s home. 

After this incident, my aunt suggested he stay with my father in Florida and buy a condo in an assisted living facility or in the senior enclave where my father lives.  All the plans were in place to take him to Florida and my father flew to California to pick him up.  What transpired next shocked all of us.

Feeling desperate and suffering from depression and anxiety which are symptomatic of dementia, my grandfather feigned a fall in the shower and begged to be taken to the emergency room.  My aunt and father rushed him to emergency and stayed for 18 hours until my grandfather was admitted.  They went home to rest and when they returned to the hospital the next day, nurses would not permit them to see him because my grandfather had claimed they abused him.  He had bruises from the shower fall to prove it. 

My grandfather assumed that the hospital would release him and that he could be free and independent once again.  This turned out to be the biggest mistake he would ever make.   My grandfather, a man who prided himself on amassing a small fortune through hard work and a frugal lifestyle and who was fiercely private and protective of his money and properties, never imagined what was to happen next. 

It was during this time at the hospital that my grandfather was officially diagnosed with dementia.  Because of this diagnosis, the hospital would not release him to anyone unless they had legal rights over him.  My grandfather never prepared a healthcare proxy, or a medical power of attorney.  What unfortunately happened next was that he became a “ward of the state,” a phrase commonly used for foster children, meaning that he and all his possessions were now under custody of the state of California.

A day later, a state social worker appeared unexpectedly at my aunt’s home to conduct an investigation. She inspected my grandfather’s living conditions only to find a large, clean bedroom stocked with his medications, belongings, and bottles of Ensure.  No signs of abuse were reported.

The same social worker advised my aunt that if she wanted to get him out of the hospital she had to file for “conservatorship” of my grandfather.  My aunt immediately hired a lawyer to begin the process.  In the meantime, my grandfather was transferred out of the hospital to a state rehabilitation center where he would be kept until a legal conservator could claim him.  I never saw the facility myself, but heard it was dark, dirty and understaffed, essentially the most depressing place to spend the rest of your life.

My grandfather figured that if he couldn’t get out by himself that the assigned state social worker would let his eldest son (my uncle) get him out.  But I suppose when a person becomes a ward of the state, the hospitals take extra precaution and stick firmly by the rules. 

My aunt and uncle’s relationship had been rocky since my grandmother passed away in 1998.   However after this incident with my grandfather, they fought like bitter enemies in court for conservatorship.  The claims, accusations and all the old baggage that emerged were as ugly as any family could imagine.  My uncle ultimately won conservatorship because the judge asked my grandfather to decide who he wanted in the role.   My family says that was like asking a young child which parent they preferred in a divorce, a difficult and painful decision.

On this trip, I made it clear to everyone that I was neutral.  I have a long history with both my aunt and uncle and love them dearly.  I arranged for my father to join me from Florida as well since it was his birthday.  We all stayed with my aunt.  My uncle invited me to stay with him but I figured he had his hands full caring for my grandfather, dressing, feeding, and bathing him.  So we made arrangements to visit him instead.  My aunt would drop us off at his house and then come back to pick us up.  You can see how this arrangement could be uncomfortable and stressful.

My greatest hope is that someone reading this can glean from my family’s painful experience and avoid the pitfalls of watching a loved one become a ward of the state and have siblings fight bitterly for conservatorship.  Preparation and forethought would have made all the difference in my grandfather’s situation.  He was good about building his nest egg but could have lost it all to the state because he thought he’d be invulnerable in his old age.

The patriarch of the family so determined to be in control and independent, my grandfather never imagined growing old with dementia.  None of us want to imagine this for ourselves.  But as life expectancy continues to increase, the rate of dementia cases is projected to nearly double every 20 years according to the 2009 World Alzheimer’s Report.  We need to be prepared and make plans for how our last days are to be carried out.

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