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Art imitates life – inside the world of elder guardianships

Given that this is a crime and justice column, it is pretty safe to say this will likely be the only time I do a movie review. But considering the subject matter of the new movie “I Care a Lot,” this film is right up my alley.

As longtime readers may remember, I have frequently written about the nationwide evils of exploitative elder guardianships, and that is the world so descriptively depicted in this new Netflix offering.

Actress Rosamund Pike portrays Marla Grayson, a diabolic, self-dealing guardian appointed by a judge to manage the lives of elderly people he has found to be “incapacitated.” What leads him to believe that these seniors cannot manage their own homes, medical care and finances? The guardian has filed a petition with the court declaring that to be the truth, and as happens in real life, this movie judge simply accepts this officer of the court is telling the truth.

I found a myriad of actual cases, nationwide, in which that original petition for guardianship was grossly exaggerated and, in some cases, completely fabricated. But once a judge accepts such a petition and the senior becomes a “ward of the court,” it is next to impossible to undo. Guardians, often paid hundreds of dollars an hour, and those they hire on to attend to the elderly are paid for out of the ward’s life savings. It is a cottage industry of elder law attorneys, guardians, caregivers, real estate agents and others who feast on the spoils of the ward’s life after guardianship takes hold.

Pike so accurately embodies the reprehensible behavior of unscrupulous guardians that I found myself remembering real-life court appointees who have employed the same tactics: targeting a wealthy, lonely elder who needs no (or minimal) care, quickly placing them in a nursing home, selling their house and all possessions and using every dirty legal machination they can to sink their claws deeper into their prey. If the elder person (or their family) reacts negatively, the guardian tells the judge there is danger afoot, and more restrictions are put in place. Wards are often locked away from their family and overmedicated to keep them docile.

I’ve seen all these things happen in guardian cases from Florida to California, from New Mexico to Maine and lots of states in between. This stuff really happens, no matter what the “professionals” in the field tell you. Some states have passed reform legislation, but little has changed, and unbelievable indignities and illegalities continue. I hear about new cases on a weekly basis.

In the movie, guardian Grayson colludes with a doctor who is handsomely rewarded for pointing the guardian to “a cherry” patient. To wit: Jennifer Peterson, a wealthy older woman who appears to have no family (wonderfully portrayed by actress Dianne Wiest). Grayson also conspires with a nursing home operator to carefully restrict her ward’s access to the outside world. Nurses and orderlies comply with orders to never let Peterson use a phone or leave the property. When Peterson acts out in desperation, her guardian convinces the judge she needs to go to a locked psychiatric ward. Overmedication continues.

Again, I’ve investigated real-life cases in which all these things — and more dastardly actions — happened. Some guardians have gone to prison, but not enough of them, in my opinion. Law enforcement mostly declines to get involved in disputed guardianships by waving them off as “civil matters” to be decided by the courts.

The film goes off into Hollywood-devised storylines I won’t give away. But “I Care a Lot” gave me the same sinking feeling I had during my deep-dive investigation into exploitive guardianships. It is a field that often attracts the criminal element, those who figure it’s easier to fleece an elderly person out of their savings than be one of those guardians who really care about helping seniors in need.

So, my movie recommendation? Watch “I Care a Lot,” and take heed. Fake petitions for guardianship can and have been conjured up by angry family members or total strangers, approved by overworked or uncaring judges and perpetuated by lawyers with dollar signs in their eyes.

It really happens. And it could happen to you or someone you love.

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To find out more about Diane Dimond, visit her website at www.dianedimond.com. Her latest book, “Thinking Outside the Crime and Justice Box,” is available on Amazon.com. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.

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