Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

Area News

April 11, 2013

On his own again

Veteran finds new lease on life with new estate conservator

CROSSVILLE — Jim Berger was discharged from the U.S. Navy March 25, 1946.

As he left a local nursing home on March 25, 2013, he couldn't help but recognize the symbolism.

"It's wonderful," Berger said of his new home, a one-bedroom apartment in Crossville. "I never saw the apartment until I walked in today. It's all I need."

Berger has spent the past two and a half years in a nursing home after a conservator was appointed by the court to handle his affairs and make his decisions. His home and possessions, including the convertible automobile he loved driving, were auctioned off.

"I've lost two and a half years of my life," said Berger, now 87 years old.

Berger, a scratch golfer, found Fairfield Glade in 1979 and retired to the area a few years later. He had worked as an insurance salesman throughout his career and served in the U.S. Navy stationed in the South Pacific during World War II.

Berger had just returned from a car trip to Michigan to visit family in August 2010 when the fatigue of the drive, coupled with not enough food and failure to wear his diabetic support, hose sent him into a diabetic emergency. He said he had just called his children in Michigan to report he'd made it home safely and taken a few bags into the house when he collapsed.

"It was my fault I ended up in the hospital," Berger said, who has lived with diabetes for 35 years. "My legs collapsed. I laid on the floor until the next morning at 8 o'clock. I hallucinated I was in a confectionary store with ice cream and cookies. I was reaching and couldn't grab them."

He was taken to Cumberland Medical Center and transferred to the Nashville VA Medical Center for treatment. Following his treatment there, the doctors at the VA referred him to a local nursing home for three weeks of rehabilitation before he returned home.

After three weeks, the staff conferred with him and it was decided he needed to stay a little longer so that he could get a little stronger before returning to his home in Fairfield Glade. He agreed to extend his stay a little longer, but says he was assured he'd be able to leave when he decided he wanted to.

"It wasn't long before I was running all over the place with a walker," he said. "My legs were strong."

He gathered a small box of belongings he had with him and called a cab. Before he could leave, however, he was detained by staff and kept at the nursing home. That was Dec. 20, 2010.

"I said I didn't understand, that they told me I could go home," he said.

He says he was kept there until May 11, 2011, when the court appointed a conservator to make decisions about his health and estate. There, a doctor testified Berger was unable to care for himself or perform basic tasks of daily living, such as feeding and clothing himself, that his diabetes was out of control and that he exhibited signs of dementia.

Berger believes his regimen of prescriptions of insulin and blood pressure medicine left him feeling and appearing weak. As his medication was adjusted, his condition greatly improved.

Berger's plight came to the attention of local attorney James "Jim" Thompson, a retired colonel with the U.S. Air Force, who often works with veterans to help them put their affairs in order, or access benefits they have earned.

"Someone called and said this man was being held against his will," said Brenda Thompson, James Thompson's wife and Berger's new conservator. "He didn't even have a phone then. Jim went over and met him."

Jim Thompson helped arrange a new evaluation by doctors at the Veterans Administration, which found no signs of dementia.

"I got 28 out of 30," Berger said. "I was happy because I wanted to prove I wasn't a screwball."

The next step was having a new conservator appointed for Berger. Brenda Thompson met him at a local veterans ceremony and agreed he was, "sharp as a tack." She volunteered for the job.

"He needed help and didn't have any family in the area," she said.

All the attorneys in the case were contacted, as well as the initial conservator, and they all agreed with the substitution.

Next up was getting Berger signed up for home health services.

"We knew if he was able to get home health care, he could be on his own," Brenda Thompson said. "But we were in a catch-22. You can't get approved for home health until you have a home address."

She found an apartment that was in a convenient location and affordable and was able to sign a lease contingent on the home health approval.

That was the last hurdle before setting a moving date.

"Tennessee has the services available to let seniors stay in their homes," she said.

Berger is looking forward to quiet times at his new home.

"I wonder what I'll do. I'll probably spend more time here, being alone," he said.

He's set up in his apartment with gifts from the people who worked at the nursing home. He also has his own iron and ironing board.

"In a nursing home, they don't let you do your own ironing," Berger said. After a lifetime in business wearing suits daily, he liked to dress neatly and take care of his own ironing. Brenda Thompson said that was the only thing he asked for when leaving the nursing home.

"He told me many times, the quantity of life didn't matter if you're captive," she said. "The quality of life is more important."

Berger's plight is not that unique, however. Just recently, it was reported in the Nashville Tennessean a public guardian charged $986 to accompany her ward to a Christmas concert. Other seniors have seen their estates sold off for pennies on the dollar and their life savings eaten up in fees without being able to have a say in the matter.

Reports such as that have spurred a call for reform from the state. A bill has been introduced in the Tennessee General Assembly that would reform procedures for placing someone in a conservatorship, including notifying the person within 48 hours of emergency action and holding a hearing within five days for emergency conservatorship proceedings. The bill would also require an annual review to determine if conservatorship were still warranted and to require more frequent financial reports be filed.

Last year, the state amended laws to tighten requirements for conservators.

Brenda Thompson said there were steps all adults could take to protect themselves from being left to the mercy of the court and a court-appointed conservator. Those are a Power of Attorney for business affairs and a Power of Attorney for health care.

"It's a serious thing," she said. "You can't say it couldn't happen to me. It could happen to anyone."

A Power of Attorney for business affairs would not take effect until the person was ruled incompetent, but at that time, a person of his or her choosing would take control of personal property. It would also require two doctors to testify to the person was unable to make decisions for his or herself. A Power of Attorney for health care goes beyond a living will, granting the person named authority to step in and make health care decisions on behalf of the patient.

"Today, when kids are not necessarily close by or even close emotionally to their parents, it's something to think about," Brenda Thompson said.

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