Dear Family Advisor

How much say do I have in determining who is guardian over me and my affairs?

Last updated: Jul 21, 2008

Do I have any rights in determining my care and who is guardian over my life? Family interactions are making it impossible for me to determine who's involved and the extent of their involvement. Family members will not discuss these important issues with me -- I can't seem to get any solid, reliable answers to my questions. I need a referral to someone who can help me find out what's going on, someone with whom I can discuss these life issues and feel safe.

There is a man who was given guardianship over my affairs, but he will not sit down with me to discuss this, and I am not certain if this guardianship is still in place or not. I just need information about his responsibilities to me, if he is my guardian, and to what extent can I remain an influence in the control of my personal issues.

I am in desperate need of medical and dental care, as well as vision assistance. When I ask this man about seeking medical attention for severe muscle and joint problems, the questions go avoided and unanswered. I cannot continue living my life under such stress. I deserve to be informed and allowed to take part in the decisions affecting my life, do I not? Please reply quickly -- I am desperate!

You represent many elders who feel out of the loop when it comes to their own finances and life planning. Your situation is more confusing because I take it that you don't have children or a close family member whom you can trust to help you. But don't panic. There is help out there for you.

If your guardian has very little to do with you and you can't communicate with him about your needs and concerns, it's time for a change. But first, you need to make sure that you have a guardian. Guardianship is a legal process, so you would have had to go through an examination of competency in order to have had someone appointed as your guardian. If you did, the man who you say was appointed probably still is your guardian, because that has to be changed legally. Do you have his name or phone number, or do you know someone who does?

Once you have his information, call your state or local Department of Elder Affairs. You should be able to get the number by dialing Information (411) or looking online. There's an office of elder affairs in every state, and yours can connect you with the agencies in your area that can help you. The office can also assign you a case director to help plan your care and assist you with your guardianship issues.

If you're involved with a senior center, it will also have helpful contact information. Tell the staff at the center that you're elderly and need assistance in finding out who your guardian is and how to change to a new guardian.

You will need a lawyer to contest the guardianship or request to have your rights restored. You won't have to find an attorney on your own -- the court will typically appoint one for you. Your advocate from the elder affairs office will also help you through this process. Both people can talk to you about different types of guardianship and the rights you maintain with each of them. The Department of Elder Affairs will also be on the lookout for potential abuse and may consider your current guardian neglectful.

If you don't currently have a guardian, you can select someone to take that role for you in the future. If you have a guardian already, you have the right to try to change guardians, but you may not be able to pick your new one. You can certainly suggest a new person, however, and the court may consider your choice. So you should start thinking about this now. It's best to pick someone who is younger than you and willing to oversee several aspects of your life and coordinate your care. The guardian doesn't have to do it all, but he or she should be willing to make sure it's all being done. You should be comfortable with this person and able to tell him or her about all of your concerns and what you really want and need -- today and in the future. If you have someone in mind, talk to the person about it now.

It's also a good idea to gather all your medical information (insurance cards and phone numbers, doctors' names and phone numbers, and a list of your medical conditions and current medications) and financial information (checking and savings accounts, social security number, deed to your home and car, other investment information) and put it in a folder or box where you can get to it easily.

In the meantime, don't wait to seek medical care. If you don't drive, you may know a church or synagogue member or a neighbor who's willing to help out with doctor appointments or grocery shopping. But there are also many community resources you can trust to help you get along: Meals on Wheels, senior centers, adult daycare, senior aids, senior transportation vans, and others are often free and available for the asking. Any of them can provide you with a list of other services and resources in your area. Don't hesitate to make some calls and ask for assistance. It's time to get the help you deserve.