JFCS conservatorship helps elders maintain their dignity

Eileen Goldman takes care of people and their problems.

As director of senior services for the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services, Goldman, along with her staff of social workers, help seniors and their families arrange for health care, meals, household services, recreation and other needs.

But sometimes problems arise that are beyond Goldman's authority.

Some clients who are no longer competent to make decisions about their care also have no family members to take on that responsibility.

In those cases, JFCS' hands are tied. It could make recommendations but can neither deliver services nor spend any of their clients' money without the consent of a legally responsible adult.

Committed to continue caring for all her clients, Goldman instituted a conservatorship program at JFCS.

A conservatorship is a legal proceeding initiated by a petition to the probate court asking to determine whether an individual is competent to manage his or her affairs.

If the person is found incompetent, a conservator is appointed to make decisions for him or her and pay all necessary expenses from the estate. The court monitors the case through periodic reports from the conservator.

Using handbooks and videos, Goldman trained herself and her staff on the legal aspects of conservatorships and soon the program was up and running.

In the past two years, JFCS has been appointed conservator in 13 cases. Goldman expects more cases in the future and anticipates increasing her staff to handle them.

The decision to apply for a conservatorship is not made lightly. Goldman only acts in cases where no one else is available and the need is obvious. JFCS works closely with lawyers who help evaluate cases before legal action is taken.

"We look for the least restrictive alternative and only go for a conservatorship where we believe the risk is great and the person is unable to make his own decisions," Goldman says.

In all cases, JFCS' goal is to provide clients with the best quality of life possible within their budgets, usually trying to maintain them in their own home as long as possible.

"We feel a family responsibility," says Goldman of the agency's conservatorship cases.

And just like family, that responsibility doesn't end at 5 p.m. Someone is available 24 hours a day to address any crisis that arises.

"I'm very pleased with it," says Deborah, the adult child of Joseph, one of the agency's conservatees [their names were kept private for legal reasons]. "They have been very responsible and gotten good people in. I have nothing but the highest praise."

Deborah, estranged from her father, asked Goldman to oversee Joseph's case. Goldman took on the case and initiated a reconciliation between father and daughter. A few years later, when Joseph's mental condition deteriorated, Deborah asked Goldman to act as conservator.

In some cases, the need for a conservatorship arises suddenly. In those instances, JFCS makes an emergency application to the probate court and can get a temporary conservatorship order within days.

Miriam, 90, lived with her 50-year-old mentally disabled daughter, Rebecca. Social Security provided Rebecca with a daily chore worker who also cared for Miriam. JFCS' senior services only monitored the case.

When Rebecca was unexpectedly hospitalized, Social Security discontinued the chore worker. Miriam, unable to care or cook for herself, needed help immediately. JFCS subsidized a home-care worker, made an emergency application to the court and two days later had a temporary conservatorship order.

In other cases, the clients, recognizing their disabilities, will ask JFCS to apply to serve as conservator.

According to San Francisco attorney Bruce Feder, without JFCS, these seniors would be referred to the county's public guardian office or a private professional conservator. Although these alternatives can provide excellent care, JFCS is in a better position to care for clients it has been involved with before the need for a conservatorship arises, he says.

"JFCS has pretty amazing people in terms of the talent and experience they bring to this," says Feder who represents the agency in many of its conservatorship cases.

Although JFCS and its attorney are entitled to fees from the conservator's estate, no agency client is refused for lack of money. And, Feder points out, often the estate is depleted before the conservatorship is terminated.

Even though the work is time consuming and often non-remunerative, Feder and Goldman find their work rewarding.

"I like the work because it focuses on helping people, not fighting," says Feder.

Ultimately for Goldman, "the reward is knowing you've made a significant difference in a person's life."