After his wife died, Tom, 83, lived with a caretaker. His daughter was worried. Tom wasn’t his old self. He was getting slower, repeated himself, didn’t seem to remember things that mattered. But when Adult Protective Services interviewed him, they thought he seemed fine. Later, when his daughter finally managed to get him into court to appoint a guardian, they discovered that the caretaker had made off with most of his savings.
Meanwhile, Patricia, 85, lived alone. She had some mild cognitive impairment, that was obvious. She didn’t get jokes the way she used to, seemed withdrawn, and her memory wasn’t as sharp. But she could get around on her own. She managed her finances and made her own decisions. A nephew disagreed. He referred her case to a doctor who found that her impairment had progressed to mild dementia, and a court declared the nephew her temporary guardian. If she hadn’t by chance run into an old friend who was an elder law attorney, the nephew would have stolen the tens of thousands of dollars he planned to.
These anecdotes were recently related to me by Professor Peter Lichtenberg of Wayne State University, a clinical psychologist and national expert on the financial exploitation of seniors. We met at last April’s conference “Our Aging Brains” at Harvard Law School, where panelists demonstrated the challenges—and profound stakes measured in human suffering—involved in a legal ruling that an individual with dementia either has or lacks legal capacity.