Retirement

Shocking Reality: An Elder’s Severe Self-Neglect

Daughter is in her late 50s, with a difficult mother who is in her mid 80s. Daughter’s mother, V, has always been “kind of nutty” as Daughter describes her. They were semi-estranged for years but not entirely out of contact, with Daughter living in a different state.

One day, Daughter got a call from V’s neighbor, who sounded alarmed. She was used to seeing V standing on her front porch every day, staring out and saying little. V is a widow, living alone and Daughter is her only child. The neighbor had not seen V for over two weeks and was not sure who was supposed to be looking out for this elder next door. Daughter called her uncle T
T
, who lived an hour away from V’s home. He is the only other relative. He told Daughter he thought V was “probably traveling”. Daughter knew that V, now frail and confused, was certainly not capable of traveling. She then called the local police to do a welfare check on V.

What Police Found

The police arrived and knocked on the front door. No answer. They broke open the door and called out. No response. They headed for doors that led to the bedrooms. They were locked. They had to break down two doors to get to V’s bedroom. They found her there, looking very pale, semi-conscious, and emaciated. They called an ambulance and sent her to the hospital. V, at about 5’6” tall weighed only 79 pounds! She was severely malnourished and had various other health issues. She remained in the hospital and later was sent to a rehab facility so she could gain weight and be supervised. Her odds of survival were not good.

When Daughter confronted her uncle T, he was evasive and would not answer questions. How could he have let her get to this point of nearly starving herself to death?? Daughter consulted us at AgingParents.com. She got into V’s house and took photos at my suggestion. The place was ghastly, filthy and piled with trash. Uncle T tried to block Daughter from getting any information. He became suspect in Daughter’s eyes. Was he taking advantage of V’s wealth? What did he have to hide?

Legal Implications

At this point Daughter had two choices: deal directly with her mother’s safety by taking legal action, or, let her self-negelct again after she got out of the rehab place if she made it that far. The medical people would likely send her right back home.

Daughter’s decision was difficult. All V’s legal documents had been removed from her mom’s house, and she suspected that T had them. I suggested she seek a guardianship (called conservatorship) attorney. That action could get her appointed temporarily, with a court order, to get all the necessary records of her mother’s assets and to take control. It was very likely that a court would grant such an emergency measure, given the severity of V’s neglect of her basic needs. Daughter is out of state and really doesn’t want the job of minding her difficult, “nutty” mother. But she could appoint a licensed person, called a fiduciary in CA, to take over, once the information as to V’s assets was available. V had sufficient assets to pay that fiduciary and to cover all of her care needs.

Daughter does not have much money to pay the lawyer but she can borrow some and at least get started. Once she has access to her mother’s back accounts, she can pay for mom’s care and reimburse herself for the legal expenses. If her uncle T was ever appointed on any legal document to act on behalf of V, he could be removed. He clearly did not watch out for her most basic health and safety needs. We hope this effort does result in overall protection of V. In this case, self-neglect is so extreme, the court can easily see the danger. Judges are obligated to consider health and safety needs of vulnerable elders above anything else.

The Takeaways:

  1. Even if you are not fond of a “nutty” aging parent, you can still take action to protect them from severe self-neglect. Guardianship/conservatorship is an option. You will have to pay an attorney to get it done. You do not have to serve as the guardian if you do not want to do that job. A licensed person can be paid to be the guardian/conservator. If the aging parent has assets, family who initiate such court action can reimburse themselves for the cost.
  2. If you suspect an aging parent’s self neglect or if someone notifies you that they are worried about your elder being unable to care for themself, you can request a welfare check from the local police. If it’s bad as it was in V’s case, they will get the elder to the hospital.
  3. Emotional distance from an aging parent who was not a good parent can result in life and death danger to the elder as their health fails. If you don’t want to see that happen, you can take to see that the aging parent has basic protection from serious self-neglect.
  4. In this case V had sufficient assets to cover needed care at home. Her brother totally failed her, leaving only Daughter to prevent starvation of her mother. She did step up and took the necessary action. She is grateful to V’s neighbor, who alerted her.
  5. No matter how bad a parent was, every person deserves the basics in life: food, clothing, shelter and for frail elders, necessary care. Things can get very dangerous for an aging parent who has insufficient protection or none.

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