At the age of 99, because of Florida's guardianship system, he was taken from his apartment at a St. Petersburg elder community to a hospital for bladder cancer surgery, and transferred from there into a nursing home’s locked ward for dementia patients.
Six months later, thanks to friends from his church and a volunteer long-term care ombudsman who agitated for his release, he returned to The Fountains at Boca Ciega Bay.
It’s not the same apartment where he once lived, and his court-appointed guardian sold a lot of his furniture and possessions after placing him in the lockdown unit. But at 100, he is grateful to be home free.
“For two and a half years, I had no rights,” he says. “We had three or four attorneys, and they are not worth the salt on your bread.”
Berchau is a courtly, sweet-natured man who speaks four languages. His small and wiry frame moves deliberately these days — but his thoughts do not hesitate as he recalls how the struggle for his liberty unfolded.
It started at a painful point in his life; he had just lost his wife after two years of caring for her at home.
“She was wonderful. Oh, I wish she would be back!” he says. “We never used to argue, never. If we had a grievance or something to say, we sat down; she came up with a piece of cake and coffee and we discussed it.”
Weary from his years as a caregiver, Berchau wanted to leave behind the house he had shared with his wife, and move to an apartment at The Fountains. He agreed to sell it for $55,000. Then a real estate broker told him the house was worth more, and she offered to find an attorney who would cancel the sale.
“In the meantime, I sent money to my relatives in Germany,” he says. “When the checks couldn’t be cashed, I knew there was something wrong.”
Calls to the state’s Adult Protective Services division of the Department for Children and Families about an elder’s suspected incapacity are anonymous, and Berchau can never know for sure who reported him to the authorities as an elder with dementia.
Patricia Johnson, a professional guardian in Pinellas County, sold Berchau’s house for $65,000, according to court records. She also took over his bank account, changed his doctors, and had his mail sent to her home.
“She became my guardian on account of the court’s decision,” Berchau says. “I looked at her and she looked at me, and I had a feeling that I wouldn’t be able to get along with her. And that’s what happened, from Day One up to the last moment.”
Johnson disputes this account, saying she and Berchau had a “fantastic relationship” until some of his German relatives learned of his case and got involved. She believes they were after his money, and she continues to maintain that Berchau suffers from dementia. She also points out that the court monitor in Pinellas County never accused her of doing anything wrong in Berchau’s case.
Johnson — who says she charges $70 an hour as a guardian, with “30 to 60 percent” of her caseload pro bono — says news reports critical of the guardianship system are not in elders’ best interests.
“Having worked in the system for 30 years, my biggest problem has been that people get scared off by the very people that are trying to help them,” she says. “These stories create an impression that guardianship is a scary thing, and it doesn’t have to be. I’m only there to manage problems and make life better.”
About a year into his guardianship, Berchau says, he feared that Johnson planned to remove him from his apartment, and he asked staff members at the Fountains to help him. That brought a threatening letter from Johnson to the community’s administrators, in September 2012.
She had successfully petitioned the court to restrict Berchau’s right to choose his own doctor and travel, the letter informed them, and he could not leave the premises “unless the guardianship approves, knows with whom he is going and where. His right to make social decisions has been removed also, therefore, you will need to let me know if people are coming to see him, or trying to take him places. . . . You are not helping Mr. Berchau by keeping him confused and at odds with the guardianship.”
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Elder guardianship: "For two and a half years, I had no rights"