WASHINGTON — Elderly Americans told a House panel Friday of their terror and humiliation as wards of a guardianship system they said strips them of their rights under the guise of protection.
"What began as a plan to protect myself and my affairs while I recovered from my stroke ended up a nightmare," said Minnie Monoff, 81, of Greeley, Kan.
"All you have to do is to have a stroke or be in a coma, and they can take away all your rights," added Marguerite Van Etten, 66, of Plantation, Fla.
The two women and others told tales of forcible removal from their homes, forced admission to nursing homes, theft committed by their guardians and loss of basic rights, such as getting mail, telephone calls and money from the bank.
'Was Branded Incompetent'
"I felt so helpless. It really hurt that I was branded incompetent, and no one would listen to me," said Tod Porterfield, 83, of Albion, Ind., at the end of a tearful presentation. "How can a man step in and just take over another man's life, and no one even questions it?"
Rep. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.), at 87 the oldest member of Congress, called for minimum federal standards that would give people "the same protection a criminal is entitled to in court" when competency hearings are held.
"For these things to have occurred in the United States of America is difficult to believe," said Pepper, chairman of the House Select Committee on Aging's health subcommittee.
Under guardianship procedures, which vary from state to state and sometimes from county to county, guardians are appointed to take control of the property and personal affairs of elderly people who are judged infirm or incompetent.
It is unclear how many people are under guardianships, but estimates range up to 500,000. "The problem will only grow greater as America grows older," said John H. Pickering, chairman of the American Bar Assn.'s Commission on Legal Problems of the Elderly.
Other witnesses recommended better training and monitoring of guardians, tighter financial accountability and a limit on the number of wards a guardian can have. They also suggested better training of judges, more money for staff and limited guardianships that give people the help they need without robbing them of their autonomy.