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Question of Care : For Elderly, New Gray Areas in Law

May 02, 1985|JONATHAN PETERSON | Times Staff Writer

When the elderly couple failed to emerge for several days from their white ranch-style home in a residential Los Angeles neighborhood, worried neighbors checked to find out what was wrong.

The husband and wife, each about 90, had simply stopped taking care of themselves. Their home of 30 years, nestled behind pink-flowered bushes, was infested with fleas and gnats. The man's hearing aid needed batteries. The woman required treatment for malnutrition.

So the questions arose: Who should untangle the couple's neglected affairs? How should their money be handled? What about maintaining their home?

Legal Furor Generated

The couple had no children or any arrangements for such a situation. Ultimately, a private agency, a neighbor and a distant nephew were drawn into the vacuum, setting off a legal imbroglio over such vital decisions as where the two should live and whether to sell the house--with the couple having very little to say in the matter.

The couple's plight--their inability to manage their affairs any longer--is one to which society traditionally has paid little attention. But now, as more people live longer, sometimes alone, such problems are gaining the attention of public officials, social workers, attorneys and researchers.

The plight may be obvious, such as when a person sets the kitchen on fire because he or she no longer is able to cook a meal safely. Or it can stay hidden from friends and neighbors for many months, as may be the case when a person gradually loses track of bills, taxes, bank accounts and other financial affairs.

Depended on Families More

"There are a growing number of people in metropolitan areas like Los Angeles and San Diego who don't have family that are willing to take over these functions if they become incapacitated," said Jack McKay, who directs a nonprofit organization in San Francisco that helps manage financial and other affairs for old people who no longer can handle their own. "In the past, most people didn't live as long as they do now--and they depended on their family more when they did."

Actually, families continue to provide the vast majority of personal help received by persons over 65, said Elaine Brody, a Philadelphia researcher who has studied the issue for the federal government. But it is easy to see why there is growing concern: The number of Americans 75 or over, already at 11.3 million, 4.8% of the population, is projected to reach 17.2 million, 6.4% of the population, by the turn of the century.

By the time persons born in the years after World War II are elderly, the 75-plus group will number 30 million, nearly 10% of the population. Already, between 15% and 20% of those over 65 may need "considerable help" in their daily activities, said Brody, who is associate research director at the Philadelphia Geriatric Center.

In addition, lower birth rates, higher divorce rates and the emerging phenomenon of extremely old people with offspring who also are old combine to cast uncertainty over the role families will play in supporting the elderly in the coming years.

"Hundred-year-olds can't move in with their children when their children are in their eighties," said Margaret L. Campbell, a researcher at the University of Southern California's Andrus Gerontology Center. "It's not just the case that the elderly have been abandoned. It's that the elderly are much older than they used to be, and the kids who would be taking them in are much older."

Variety of Activities

The changing conditions have spawned a variety of activities in an area that most persons, perhaps, would prefer not to think about:

--The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is financing an $83,000 study at USC's Andrus center to examine cases turned over to Los Angeles County authorities involving old people who fail to manage their affairs and to consider options for resolving their problems outside the courtroom.

--California lawmakers, along with counterparts in most other states, have enacted laws in recent years allowing persons to designate others to make key decisions for them in case they lose the ability to manage their affairs.

--The American Bar Assn. plans to highlight the problems of the elderly by informing members about various legal concerns that may arise for the elderly and by reviewing state laws that govern such situations. "You're going to be seeing more activity in this field in the coming months than in the history of the ABA," said John C. Shepherd, the association's president.

Diverse and Vexing

The problems officials may face are diverse and vexing. Situations brought to the attention of USC researchers amount to a poignant catalogue of old persons fighting decline with limited success:

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