At 89, Marie Winkelman has long considered herself a fortunate woman — even though she lost her entire family except for one cousin in the Holocaust, was widowed twice and has no children.
Her brave odyssey from wartime Poland to the United States would appear to have ended happily, with a comfortable retirement in Sarasota.
But Winkelman’s faith in a nation that had been kind to her was shaken in July 2013, when she was stripped of her civil rights and declared a ward of the state of Florida.
Now, strangers control her life savings, her worldly possessions and her medical care. The court has ordered a trust company to cut checks from her account for some $635,000 to pay attorneys, guardians and others involved in her case, with many more expenses pending.
A professional guardian receives more than $1,000 a month, at $85 an hour, to coordinate Winkelman’s doctors’ appointments, help with financial transactions and communicate with her cousin and a family friend — who both sought unsuccessfully to free her from a legal status she finds expensive and intrusive.
“I pay for everything, for lawyers, for everything,” Winkelman says. “Unbelievable! They know that I don’t need any of their help. Not that I am so smart — but I can handle certain things.”
Her case is part of an accelerating national social phenomenon that has plunged aging Americans into a sometimes bewildering guardianship system when they are deemed too frail or mentally compromised to make decisions for themselves.
In the middle of an unprecedented national longevity trend, half of all Americans 85 and over are believed to experience significant cognitive decline. Many of them wind up in sunny Florida, far away from sons and daughters — some with enough assets to make them attractive to scammers and cheats, others outliving their savings and utterly dependent on the state.
In response to a pressing need, Florida has cobbled together an efficient way to identify and care for helpless elders, using the probate court system to place them under guardianship.
But critics say this system — easily set in motion, but notoriously difficult to stop — often ignores basic individual rights. Most of it plays out in secret, with hearings and files typically closed from the public.
Even basic documents are hard to find. Because Florida’s court clerks keep records differently, there are no clear numbers on the rise in guardianship cases, and no accounting of how many millions are spent on attorneys, guardians, and medical and financial experts.
But there is no doubt that monitoring elders and tapping their assets is a growth business: In 2003, there were 23 registered professional guardians in Florida, according to the Department of Elder Affairs. Today there are more than 440 — an increase greater than 1,800 percent in 11 years.
Talk to the social workers, guardians and attorneys who run this system, and you hear assurances of their good intentions and diligence in looking after people who have lost their rights to make decisions for themselves.
But from family members and friends caught in the system against their will, stories emerge of a ruthless determination to take elders from their homes and make them conform to a one-size-fits-all process by which their belongings can be sold, and their family and friends shut out — until eventually they are locked away in institutions to decline and die.
The critics call this process “liquidate, isolate, medicate.”
Once activated, this system plunges elders into a legal labyrinth, where they quickly come to depend on the kindness of strangers.
'It’s not fair'Winkelman has a rich and bubbling laugh that can make a stranger feel right at home in her colorful apartment, where the walls glow with cheerful still lifes, landscapes and portraits she’s painted.
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Elder guardianship: A well-oiled machine