|Joan & Dan Pyle|
If every aging and unsettled family is unhappy in its own way, the twilight of Dan and Joan Pyle is especially daunting.
When the Pyles celebrate their 30th
summer at their Southeast Portland home, they will do so in the company
of a court-ordered guardianship/conservatorship and its omnipresent
They are under 24-hour guard. Their credit cards have been cancelled,
their drivers' licenses removed. They are stressed and unhappy, so
frustrated that when a neighbor, Peggy Gaston, received permission to
take the Pyles out for dinner, Joan asked her to ditch the caregiver who
was following them in another car. Gaston, quite cheerfully, did.
"We don't mean to sound melodramatic," Joan wrote in a recent email,
"but you feel like jumping off of a bridge and ending the misery."
The elderly couple – Dan turns 84 in March, Joan 80 – are now
"protected persons." Their anguish over the loss of autonomy is a window
into the complexities of guardianship, family planning, and Multnomah
County's probate court, as well as the harrowing toll of grief and loss
on the elderly.
And the troubled witnesses peering through that window are sharply
divided over whether the Pyles are so vulnerable – or so volatile – that
they require the 24-hour supervision that costs them $369 each day.
The guardianship "isn't making them better," says Gaston, who met Dan
and Joan before they married. "It's making them depressed. They're the
generation that built this country. They worked hard all their lives,
and they want to enjoy their retirement. And they're not able to make
Dan Pyle is a former Portland longshoreman, dealing – court papers
note – with Alzheimer's and congestive heart failure. Joan, his second
wife, has long been his primary caretaker.
In 2011, Dan Pyle was hospitalized following a series of falls. "He
had this huge wound on his leg that was getting infected," says Rob
Pyle, Dan's oldest son. "They (doctors) took one look at him and
immediately called Adult Protective Services."
When an investigator interviewed Rob and his sister, Darcy Steele,
Rob says, "We told him that Joan loves my dad, but she can't take care
of him. She can't stop him when he goes to fall. Their decisions
together were not protecting my dad."
The state APS office agreed Dan had suffered neglect. The Pyles were
in and out of assisted living and nursing facilities for the next two
years while their children – from each of their first marriages –
Money was not an issue. As Orrin Onken, the Pyles' former attorney
noted in a request for fees, "The Pyles are estimated to have a
conservatorship estate of close to $1 million."
"Pop worked his butt off," says Ken Hieter, Joan's only son. "Mom invested it wisely."
But Joan was so obsessed with safeguarding those trusts, Rob Pyle
says, that she added a provision saying the children would be
disinherited "if we made any attempt to become guardians."
"All of the kids," Joan acknowledges, "were upset about that."
At wit's end, and concerned about Dan's safety, Hieter says he
contacted Dady Blake, an elder-law attorney. She introduced him to Tiffany & O'Shea
, a private fiduciary firm that provides guardian, conservator and estate services.
Dan was most in need of care. Joan, however, is the majority vote in
the couple's decisions. They agreed to a guardianship, Joan says,
because it allowed the Pyles to return to their home, which they did in
The honeymoon was brief. When Tiffany & O'Shea petitioned the
Multnomah County probate court to extend the guardianship and
conservatorship "for an indefinite duration," the Pyles objected.
The ensuing 10-month legal battle was revealing in a number of ways.
The Pyles quickly discovered they were paying the legal fees for both their attorneys and for the attorney – Dady Blake
– representing Tiffany & O'Shea, the conservator controlling their finances.
As Melissa Starr, one of their former caregivers, put it, "Joan and
Dan are paying the bill for their own demise. If that's not a story,
What's more, Dan and Joan were footing the bill for a company that
informed the court in its original petition for guardianship that the
Pyles are unable to manage their finances and "unable to effectively
process information to make decisions for their own safety, health and
Including in the "factual information" he presents to support those
conclusions about Joan Pyle, Michael O'Shea states (a) "A former avid
reader, she no longer can read," and (b) "She is unable to write out
numbers on a check correctly and can not balance a checkbook."
Read? "Of course she can read," Darcy Steele says. A year after
O'Shea presented this "evidence," Joan read to me a stirring passage by
Sydney Sheldon in her living room. She also nimbly filled out a check.
O'Shea did not respond to numerous requests for comment or clarification.
The hearing to terminate Tiffany & O'Shea as legal guardian and
conservator for Joan Pyle was held Oct. 28 before Multnomah Circuit
Judge Paula J. Kurshner. (Dan Pyle's request to end his protected status
was withdrawn prior to the hearing.)
At the time, caregivers were spending nine hours each day with the
Pyles. The two primary caregivers, Melissa Starr and Melissa Conlon,
both testified on Joan's behalf, describing the couple's routine and
defending their self-sufficiency.
"Joan is a bit delusional," Starr told me. "That doesn't mean she
needs a guardian. This is called a difficult case is because they (the
Pyles) object. And the reason they object is because they're not
The testimony that dominated the hearing, however, was provided by
Polly Fisher, a court visitor. After several interviews, Fisher
concluded that Joan's belief system "could be characterized as fixed,
paranoid and delusional."
She further argued, "Joan Pyle is vulnerable undue influence and to
fraud due to her inability to evaluate reality and her deficits in
memory and judgment."
In her closing, Dady Blake insisted the caregivers' assessment of how
well Dan and Joan get along actually argues for continuance of the
"It sounds like a lovely existence, quite frankly," Blake says.
Over Dan and Joan's objections, Kurshner ruled it shall endure.
"In March of this year, Mrs. Pyle, represented by counsel, stipulated
that she was incapacitated," Kurshner said. "I have heard nothing to
indicate anything has changed ...
"I'm glad they're back in the home. The care plan seems ideal for
them. I use 'them' intentionally. This (Joan) is not someone I can look
at in isolation ... They are together. That's not a fact I can ignore in
totality. The care he gets is part of the care she gets."
How does Dan Pyle sum up what he heard in that decision? "Apparently, they think they own us."
In the aftermath of Kurshner's ruling, several things have happened.
Caregivers Melissa Starr and Melissa Conlon both say they were
dismissed by Helena Lopes Culp, who runs the in-home care agency hired
by Tiffany & O'Shea.
"When I called to tell her (Culp) I'd been subpoenaed to appear,"
Conlon says, "she told me, 'If you show up in court, your services will
no longer be needed.' Quote, unquote."
Asked if that is true, Culp says, "They are contractors. They pick up hours, and there were no more hours."
The bills are coming due. Blake billed the protected couple's estate
$19,845.99, Tiffany & O'Shea $13,651, and both of those demands –
the most recent on file in a system, Blake says, where accounting is
typically done on an annual basis – only cover fees and services through
June 30. The Pyles' two attorneys, Onken and Cathryn Ruckle, charged
the couple just under $33,000.
And the in-home care – Culp's caregivers are now at the house 24
hours each day – costs more than $11,000 per month, Dan and Joan say. (Continue reading
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Steve Duin: The forlorn twilight of Dan and Joan Pyle