A Reality Nightmare
by Sue Gillis

He knocked hard on her door late in the day. Ruthie opened to an unknown man who said, "Your brother sent me to take you to a doctor's appointment." She did not know of any appointment, but because he mentioned her brother by name, she grabbed her purse, got in his car, and was driven straight to a long-term memory care facility 50 miles from her home. He left her there, promising to pick her up later.

She was seen by a doctor and left sitting in a chair in a room with a bed. There, Ruthie waited, expecting to go home. No one came. Alone and horrified, she was left in this facility for 18 days with nothing but the clothes on her back. That night and for the next two weeks, Ruthie frantically called her lifelong and most trusted friend (who is also a close friend of mine) in Vermont to help.

This is the story of a 77-year-old vulnerable woman and her daunting legal struggle to overcome elder abuse by her family. Ruthie's story is not atypical.

Here's some background. Ruthie is well known in her state. She has a PhD in education, is a practicing lawyer, and is active politically and socially. She is affluent and for the past 30 years has lived in a 5,000-square-foot condominium. She was struggling with the loss a year and a half ago of her closest friend and companion. Irregular diet and depression had led to health problems, which were treated by her longtime elder care doctor with a nutritional regime, including vitamins and prescription drugs. Though still quite social, she began to seclude herself at home, concerning friends and associates. Her health and cognitive abilities began to decline.

During this very vulnerable time, her brother, who is a lawyer, allegedly coerced her into signing a will making him the beneficiary and also giving him power of attorney, which authorized him to have power over all of her legal and financial matters, and power of attorney for health care, which authorized him to have power over all her medical treatment and decisions. Ruthie says she did not want to give him these powers but did so because she was afraid of him. She tried several times to change her will and directives, but each effort was thwarted by her brother, who threatened lawsuits against her replacement choices. Her brother also made repeated unsuccessful attempts to have Ruthie's doctor declare her incompetent.

Frustrated that his sister wanted to change her will and reassign powers of attorney, he successfully appealed to the court to authorize his three children, who are also attorneys, as conservators, making it impossible for Ruthie to change these documents or control any part of her life.

At the same time, her brother found another doctor willing to declare his sister incompetent—someone who saw her only once and signed a single-sentence diagnostic opinion stating Ruthie had severe dementia and recommending she be placed in a lockdown memory care facility for life. So within a week of being assigned as conservators, Ruthie's family put her, against her will, in the aforementioned nursing home—a high-rise lockdown facility located miles from her home and friends. Worse, her family did not personally escort Ruthie there but instead tricked her into compliance by sending a hired employee to do the job. Ruthie was locked in and locked away, seemingly forever. The brother and his children then went on a 10-day vacation out of the country.

No one, not friends or associates, actually knew where Ruthie was or how she got there. Her cell phone went dead. No charger. She lost all her contacts and made calls from the office with the help of staff, who, admirably, provided Ruthie with adult conversation and stability.

Then her remarkably tenacious hairstylist discovered where Ruthie was. Sometimes your stylist knows you better that anyone, and in this case, she was a lifesaver. Who knew.

Concerned, she stopped in to check on Ruthie every night and called my friend to report the poor living conditions and Ruthie's distressed mental state. Ruthie was confused, scared, alone, and begging to be taken home. Multiple daily calls continued for two weeks. Calls to the nursing home administrators were either not returned, or in some cases when contact was made, they would only indicate that something was not right. The brother told my friend to mind her own business and that he had full legal control.

My friend knew she had to do something to help: "I can't walk away from Ruthie. I'm the only one who can help her. She doesn't belong in that place. She worked hard all her life; she deserves better. She does need help but should not be in a locked-down facility with others who have advanced Alzheimer's." So she began the process of researching legal options, for Ruthie and for herself.

She began by calling Ruthie's court-appointed attorney, explaining the situation. Her lawyer investigated and visited Ruthie, finding her to be of sound mind though foggy and confused. Hospital personnel agreed to testify on Ruthie's behalf, stating that she should not be in that facility but back home under professional care.

A court date was set, and we attended along with 12 of Ruthie's friends, her lawyer, and two top nursing home employees. Her doctor's (the real one) medical reports and her complete financial records were presented.

Ruthie's brother and his three children, her only blood relatives, freshly back from their vacations, sat on the other side of the table. They were aggressively defensive, insisting Ruthie move into one of their condos under lockdown. They resorted to calling Ruthie an alcoholic and a hoarder and claimed that she lacked sufficient income for 24-hour home care. These were lies, and the judge did not buy their defense.

After two hours, the judge ordered my friend to take over as conservator of person, with power of Ruthie's medical and personal decisions, and immediately ordered Ruthie released from the nursing home. The family retained control over her finances, which was likely the deal they wanted anyway—no personal oversight or responsibility, just control over her money.

So 18 days later we sprang Ruthie out of the dreadful memory ward (it consisted of one small common room with a kitchen, tables, chairs, and a small TV for 30 residents, each with a small bedroom). We took her home that afternoon.

Now six weeks later, she appears content and is well taken care of by a live-in caretaker who cooks nutritious meals, manages her vitamins and medications, and drives her to appointments and social functions. They have fun together. Ruthie is back to seeing her real doctor, who says that with good nutrition, B-12 shots, and vitamin supplements, her cognitive abilities should improve.

The brother and his children continue to pressure Ruthie with looming threats and make it difficult to manage person-conservatorship from another state, but for now my friend is in daily contact with Ruthie and her caretaker, and friends drop by and take Ruthie out. Ruthie is safe from being kidnapped by her family and cannot be taken to a nursing home or to any other doctor, nor can anyone make her sign anything because she is now legally well cared for by those who value love and dignity over money.

This is a story that started as a nightmare but ended with a positive outcome, thanks to elder law and Ruthie's friends. But make no mistake, the same thing or worse could happen to you. You would be deluding yourself if you believe money doesn't matter: it does. And in the kind of culture we live in, money is valued above all else. Today, it takes dogged determination to show up when needed, to know how and when to make the right moral choice, to treat the elderly with dignity and respect. Not everyone sets their bar that high.

There are worse cases than what happened to Ruthie, in Vermont and throughout the country. While most people want the very best for their loved ones, which is to be loved, cared for, and safe, there are, unfortunately, thousands of cases of elder abuse, financial and physical.

What you can do is to listen and pay attention to your intuition and choose your beneficiaries and powers of attorney directors very carefully. Be sure to keep these documents updated at least once a year as you get older to prevent outside accusations of incompetency. And just as important, do not put this off. Get this done while your mind is sharp and your health is good. If you don't, someone else will do it for you.


How to Report Abuse and Get Assistance

To report suspected abuse, neglect or exploitation in the home or in a long term care facility in Vermont: call 1-800- 564-1612. For Out of State call 1-800-241-3918.

For help with legal documents, advocacy, and representation, call Vt. Legal Aid: Burlington 802-863-6520; Montpelier 802-223-8320. www.vtlegalaid.org

For Vermont Assistance with resources, support, information, or lodge a complaint of suspected nursing home neglect or elder abuse, contact one of these agencies:

Vermont Adult Protective Services: 802-2410345

Vermont Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living: 802-241-2401

Vermont Office of Attorney General: 802-828-3171




Sue Gillis is the Publisher of Vermont Woman.