Tampa Bay Times

SENIOR CARE WITH FEWER HEADACHES

The bill would allow families to work on elder-care issues in mediation instead of court.

- BY BAILEY LEFEVER

Bills making their way through the Florida Legislatur­e would let families and elders work on caregiving issues outside of court, saving fees and keeping disputes private.

As loved ones age, decisions over their care can become fraught with emotion. An elder might want to keep driving her car, for instance, while relatives would rather she sell it.

“A family member in some situations would go seek a guardiansh­ip, so then the legal right to make that decision shifts to the guardian,” said Zayne Smith, associate state director of advocacy for AARP Florida.

But a pair of bills making their way through the Florida Legislatur­e would offer families with aging loved ones an alternativ­e to a court-appointed guardiansh­ip to work out conflicts on specific matters such as housing, finances and health care. It’s called elder-care coordinati­ng.

“Elder-care coordinati­ng would allow the court to step in before guardiansh­ip is warranted or issued to say, ‘Let’s figure this out in mediation. Let’s all sit down and talk about this,’” Smith said. AARP is backing the bills.

House Bill 441, sponsored by Rep. Brett Hage, R-Oxford, and

Senate Bill 368, sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, spell out rules for the “Elder-focused Dispute Resolution Process.” The bills would allow courts to assign trained “elder-caring coordinato­rs” to talk issues out among family members, so painful discussion­s don’t have to play out in a courtroom. Legal matters would still be decided by the court.

“An elder-care coordinato­r is there to help this individual that still has the capacity to make legal decisions, or financial or health decisions, but may just need some help doing it,” Smith said.

Florida would be the first state to pass this kind of legislatio­n, said Linda Fieldstone, who sat on a task force to work on the program

and is the former supervisor of family court services in Miami-Dade County. Elder-caring coordinati­on began as a 2015 pilot program implemente­d by eight circuits within the Florida court system, including Miami-Dade.

In many cases, a guardiansh­ip is already in place, Fieldstone said, but this alternativ­e has kept some families from establishi­ng unnecessar­y ones. Coordinato­rs help relatives resolve disputes, reduce the risk of exploitati­on, establish health precaution­s and sometimes identify problems within the guardiansh­ips, she said.

“We’ve met with tremendous success,” said Fifth Circuit Judge Michelle Morley, who uses the program in her court. It has led to cases where families decided not to take issues to court — saving thousands of dollars in legal fees — and worked out their issues with privacy.

Rates for elder-caring coordinato­rs vary, but average about $125 an hour, Fieldstone said. The program received an $8,000 grant in 2018 to help some families get services for free.

“When I see the family fighting in the courtroom, and the elder knows what’s going on, they are just mortified,” Morley said. But with elder coordinati­on, “when they come to court about legal issues, the emotionali­ty is gone.”

The bills may not prove a solution for some, said Caitlyn Clibbon, public policy analyst for Disability Rights Florida, the state’s advocacy agency for individual­s with disabiliti­es.

The court cannot force someone into the program if they cannot pay for it, Clibbon said, “so anyone who has any money could be forced into this process, whether they like it or not.”

If an elder wanted to challenge a guardiansh­ip in court, the court could use its funds instead to pay for elder coordinati­on, she said.

“Even if they do go through this process, and the guardian says, ‘I’ll change these things you don’t like,’ then there’s no way to enforce that agreement,” Clibbon said. “The guardian can keep doing what they’ve been doing all along.”

AARP Florida supports the alternativ­e to guardiansh­ip, which can be hard to get out of and harmful to an elder’s independen­ce, Smith said.

Bailey LeFever covers seniors/ aging for the Tampa Bay Times as a Report for America corps member. Contact her at blefever@tampabay.com. Follow @blefever10. To support Bailey’s work, you can donate to the Tampa Bay Times Journalism Fund at bit. ly/timesjourn­alismfund, and mark it “Report for America.”

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