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As World Turns Grayer, Guardianships Scrutinized With AM-Guardians of Elderly II

September 20, 1987

Undated (AP) _ As the globe grows grayer, industrialized nations around the world have begun to examine and fine-tune guardianship systems to better serve and protect elderly people unable to care for themselves.

An estimated 416 million people worldwide were over age 60 in 1985, according to United Nations statistics. That number is expected to increase by 30 percent in the next decade; by the year 2025, population specialists predict the ranks of senior citizens will have swelled to more than 1.1 billion.

Faced with such projections, some countries are acting now to improve guardianship systems that allow one individual to handle the personal and financial affairs of an elderly person, or ward, judged incompetent or incapacitated.

In Canada, government officials in the largest province, Ontario, are studying possible reforms because of growing concern about abuse and exploitation of the aged. In Sweden, lawmakers are considering the elimination of legal guardianships altogether in favor of less restrictive arrangements.

In 1986, the British government responded to pressure from groups for the aged by introducing a system called ″enduring power of attorney″ under which a person who is still competent chooses someone else to look after affairs in the event of senility. The court system had approved 350 such applications by the end of last year.

Unlike the United States, where guardianship laws differ not only from state to state but also from county to county, countries such as France, Sweden, Japan and Britain have national legislation governing guardianships.

Canada’s laws vary from province to province but tend to mirror legislation in Ontario, which has 36 percent of the country’s population. The attorney general’s office there has established a committee to study possible reforms, such as creation of a Public Guardian’s office to investigate alleged abuse or exploitation of the elderly.

The provincial Public Trustee’s Office manages the financial affairs of 17,000 people, including 6,000 older than 65, who’ve been deemed ″financially incompetent″ by a physician, said Trustee Official Lou Goldstein. Every six months, individuals have the right to challenge the determination before a government-appointed review board.

″The number of successful (appeals) is not large,″ Goldstein said.

In Sweden, both a physician and a psychiatrist must examine proposed wards and determine they are unable to care for themselves or their property before they can be placed under guardianship in Sweden. Once placed under guardianship, elderly Swedes lose the rights to vote, marry and make other basic life decisions.

Elderly wards relinquish far fewer rights if they are placed under the care of custodians, who manage only their financial matters. And a proposal under consideration by committees in Parliament would replace legal guardianships with trusteeships that would tailor arrangements to meet the elderly or ill individuals’ specific needs while retaining their right to vote, said Assistant Justice of Appeal Bo Blomquist at the Ministry of Justice.

An estimated 15,000 people are under guardianship in Sweden, including the ill and the elderly, Blomquist said. Guardian committees in each county oversee the cases, monitoring the guardians’ annual reports and considering their requests to take certain actions on their wards’ behalf.

Court-appointed guardians or custodians in Sweden are required to be ″honest and wise,″ and most often are family members; in France, it is becoming increasingly common for the courts to appoint an independent person or group for the job.

French guardianship law, revised in 1968, provides for levels of care and autonomy for the elderly based on specific needs. Guardianships are reexamined if the wards or their relatives appeal the decision or later ask that the guardianships be ended. Judges who specialize in guardianships carefully monitor the process and determine the limits of the arrangement.

″We see that sometimes the guardian has a somewhat authoritarian conception of his duties, considers (the elderly ward) as a child,″ said Judge Francois Rachou, an expert on the guardianship law. ″It is always the judge who must oversee the respecting of the rights of (the ward.)″

Guardians must provide the court with annual accountings of their wards finances, including income and expenditures, and there are civil penalties if a problem is suspected and proven.

Criminal penalties - up to two years in prison - face Soviet citizens who abuse guardianship arrangements. Soviet law also makes it a crime punishable by up to a year in prison for adults to fail to care for their incompetent parents.

State medical and psychological examinations are required to determine if someone is mentally incompetent in the Soviet Union, and a civil court procedure allows friends or relatives to place the incompetent under guardianship and assume control of his or her financial affairs.

No statistics exist for the number of elderly wards in the Soviet Union, but in Japan, an estimated 600,000 senior citizens are dependent on others in daily life. A recent government study predicted the number of senile elderly would triple in the next 30 years.

A family member or prosecutor can apply to Japan’s family courts to have an individual declared incompetent and have a guardian appointed. In Britain, they apply to the Court of Protection.

If medical evidence is convincing, the British court will appoint a receiver to handle the person’s estate and needs. The receiver is required to make annual reports to the court, more often if the court requests them. Individuals judged incompetent in Britain retain their basic civil rights, such as the right to vote.

The Lord Chancellor’s Department said that at the end of 1986, the Court of Protection had 26,769 people under incompetency orders, and more than 70 percent were 65 or older.

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