Forced Assistance Amid Coronavirus Pandemic, a Flawed Guardianship System Can Make It Impossible to Care for Relatives in Assisted Living Facilities
In the summer of 2018, then-84-year-old Genyte Dirse was removed from her home — a motel she had owned and lived in for decades — and placed in an assisted living facility in St. Petersburg, Florida. This followed a relatively fast and bewildering legal fight between Dirse and a local real estate agent who argued that she wasn’t in her right mind to live independently. Ever since then, her closest living relative in the U.S., her great-nephew Gedi Pakalnis, had fought a losing legal battle to bring her back home.
Pakalnis’s fight to bring Dirse home ramped up this spring, as the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the globe. In the United States, residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities have been particularly vulnerable, with more than 51,000 deaths reported nationally from those institutions so far. In Florida, like elsewhere in the country, the number of Covid-19 deaths at senior living facilities has grown at a much faster rate than the broader population and, by early May, accounted for more than a third of the state’s pandemic fatalities.
Advocates acknowledge the pandemic “will make it more difficult” for seniors to exercise the remaining rights they do have.
In late April, the virus struck Patrick Manor, where Dirse lived. For weeks prior, Pakalnis had been trying to reach his great-aunt’s legal guardian to get information about her health, raising concerns about the fast-spreading disease. After weeks of no news, Pakalnis finally learned that Dirse had been hospitalized with Covid-19 symptoms. Dirse’s guardian told Pakalnis that he could potentially visit her once the pandemic calmed down.
He never got the opportunity. On May 5, Dirse died of Covid-19, alone at St. Anthony’s Hospital. She was not the first Patrick Manor resident to be hospitalized with the coronavirus, and by mid-May, 11 Patrick Manor residents and two staff had tested positive with the disease.
The frequent deaths of elderly people in nursing homes and assisted living facilities has become a horrifying reality throughout the pandemic. But something was also different about Dirse’s death; according to her great-nephew and others who were involved in the guardianship process, she was confined against her will to Patrick Manor, where she faced a greater likelihood of getting sick — despite having family willing and able to take care of her.
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For decades, adult guardianship has been a legally thorny issue, with independent watchdogs and journalists repeatedly finding that senior citizens are stripped of their rights and often financially exploited — with little government oversight. The cases often involve complex family drama and disagreements among siblings, but sometimes, as in Dirse’s case, it’s an outsider who gets involved, over the objections of the elderly person’s relatives. A court’s decision to appoint a guardian is usually final, as appeals are costly and complex, and appellate courts are highly deferential to the lower court’s initial findings.
The issue has taken on new relevance amid the pandemic. In a Covid-19 resource compiled by the National Guardianship Association, the American Bar Association, and the National Center for State Courts, advocates acknowledge the pandemic “will make it more difficult” for seniors to exercise the remaining rights they do have.
“In this pandemic we’re going to see abusive guardianships started over Zoom, with the virus facilitating the racket that’s already in place,” warned Dr. Sam Sugar, founder of Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship, a national advocacy group. “The difference with Covid-19 is we’re going to see wards dying in nursing homes faster, in weeks, rather than months, and a further decrease of any monitoring.”