It’s a Wednesday morning and Alejandrina Martin knocks on the door of a 67-year-old man’s apartment in a low-income complex in the Lake Murray area.
Martin is one of three Public Guardian investigators with County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency’s Public Administrator/Public Guardian (PA/PG).
For three months, Martin has been visiting David (his real name has been omitted to protect his privacy) to encourage him to let PA/PG help manage his finances and develop long-term plans for when he is no longer able to care for himself.
David’s case is one of dozens the County investigates every year. PA/PG investigates conservatorship matters and serves as the legally appointed guardian for elderly and disabled persons found by the Court to be unable to manage their own assets and personal care; approximately 175 conservatees at any given time.
PA/PG’s Public Administrator program also manages the affairs of 300-400 estates at any given time. Typically, they are individuals who die without having created a will or without an appropriate person willing or able to act as their administrator.
In the last year, PA/PG received 139 Public Guardian referrals, many of which were complaints of possible financial abuse or neglect; the majority reported by Adult Protective Services and financial institutions; others by concerned family members, neighbors or friends.
“We investigate to make sure that all their needs are being met,” says Martin, who handles 10-20 investigations at any given time. A majority of them are seniors who live alone, have neglected themselves or are being neglected by family.
David was referred to PA/PG by his mental health services provider because he suffers from anxiety and bouts of memory loss. The man has no family nearby or any close friends.
On this visit, Martin is prepared to close her case, based on several factors: David has previously resisted the PA/PG/s help; his memory appears to be OK despite the notes and phone numbers that cover his dining room and kitchen walls; he has a permanent home; and support in the form of daily meals from Meals on Wheels.
But Martin doesn’t want to close the case if Lawrence needs help. She spends time with him.
She listens. After more than an hour, David confides that he plans to take his life’s earnings, $100,000, out of the bank because he received a request to repay a $20,000 student loan and now fears that someone is “trying to take my money away.”
It’s exactly the kind of financial move that could eventually make David a victim. Having large sums of money at home is never a good idea, especially for older adults who are most vulnerable to financial abuse. Martin tries unsuccessfully to convince Lawrence that it would be unwise to take all his money out of the bank. Finally, she promises to look into the student loan issue, and to come back in 30 days to check on David. She leaves the case open.
“My concern is that if he takes his money from the bank, the money is going to end up in his home, which makes him more vulnerable to robbery or financial abuse,” says Martin outside the man’s apartment.
Cases of elderly people who need the PA/PG’s help are not unusual.
In 2009, Martin investigated the case of an 83-year-old City Heights man. Neighbors saw him biking around the neighborhood for years. But now he was a shut in. He didn’t recognize neighbors when they called. And a stranger was now seen coming and going out of the man’s house.
When Martin investigated, she found the house in uninhabitable condition. No food, no gas. It was dirty, smelly, infested with mold. Mice skittered about. The man had neglected his hygiene and had obvious physical and mental health problems. He had apparently hired the stranger, and paid him in cash, but he could not remember why. A PA/PG team found $227,000 in cash hidden in different places throughout the house. The man was eventually hospitalized, the courts declared him gravely disabled and appointed the Public Guardian as his conservator because he had no family to care for him.
In Vista, Martin is trying to help a nearly comatose 90-year-old woman stay in her assisted living facility. She owes the facility $60,000 but the bank won’t grant her nephew access to her $300,000 account to pay the bills. If the courts make the PA/PG the woman’s conservator as the nephew wants, the County would manage the woman’s funds and ensure she is cared for.
“We would rather have family step in and help their loved ones, but we are here when we are needed,” says Martin. “We view ourselves as being the conservator of last resort.”
If you suspect an adult is being abused or neglected, call the County’s Adult Protective Services at (800) 510-2020. To make a conservatorship referral, call the Public Guardian Office at (858) 694-3500. You may also file a report electronically at www.papg.org.
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