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Utah public guardians look out for 'invisible' elderly and disabled

Published December 23, 2012 11:44 pm

Season of Giving • Public guardians serve elderly and disabled people with no one else to care for them.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Editor's note: This is the sixth story in a series profiling people and organizations helping those in need during the holidays and throughout the year.

Leslie Barton walked into the nursing home room in Salt Lake City holding a Santa box tied with a bow.

"Do you remember who I am?" she said to the dark-haired woman in a wheelchair.

"Yes," the woman replied, nodding her head with a little smile. At 87, Virginia speaks in a clear voice that's strong despite a slight quaver. Though she's lost most of her sight, she loves listening to books on tape and hearing birds when she sits outside.

Barton, with her bobbed brown hair and southern accent, isn't a long-lost niece or granddaughter. She's a public guardian for the state of Utah with legal responsibility for Virginia and other women and men like her who can no longer make decisions for themselves and don't have family members or friends to do it for them.

Utah maintains about 240 such guardianships for people from age 19 to the eldest client who recently died at age 100, said Donna Russell, director of the Office of Public Guardian. There are people like Virginia — whom The Tribune is identifying by first name only at her request — who simply never married or had children and don't have family in the area. Some are developmentally disabled, or were homeless and have chronic conditions from years of living on the streets. Two are refugees from Vietnam who came to the U.S. years ago following the war that devastated their country and suffer from mental illness. About a dozen others were found by police, victims of abuse by their families.

"Folks who have been … financially exploited, or cases where they just have to be removed from a home where families aren't taking care of them due to substance abuse, using their money and not caring for grandma," Russell said of the abuse cases. "Somebody ends up reporting them and [authorities] find the older person in the basement, not able to get out of bed or toilet themselves for weeks at a time."

Their basic needs are met through Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and other programs, but the office is seeking donations during the holiday season: Twin- size sheets, warm pajamas, sweats, shoes, hats, slippers and shirts. The donations will be used for current clients and kept on hand for new people who come to the office with very little. People can donate a gift card, or call the office at 801-538-8255 to shop for a particular client.

"These are kind of invisible people in the community, unless you have a reason to be working with them or know about them. It's a responsibility of guardian we take very seriously," Russell said. "These aren't just names on a paper to us."

That's true for Barton, who visits Virginia to give her company as well as understand what she would want if, for example, she needs surgery or there's a question of whether to resuscitate her. On a recent day, they chatted about Virginia's childhood in California and Utah, and her subsequent work in Washington, D.C., with the U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs.

Barton has been visiting Virginia once a month for the last two years. "You look the same, that's what's funny," Barton said to her with a smile. Virginia likes books about travel, and on her dresser was an audio version of An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson, which chronicles the life of a Revolutionary War general who was also a spy for the Spanish secret service — and the presidents who knew he was a spy, but gambled that he would never truly betray the army.

Books and fellow nursing home residents and staff are most of her company now — Virginia has six siblings, but they're spread around the country from Nevada to Hawaii. She seems content, though, as she chats with Barton, asking about her life and children.

"Time goes so fast," Virginia said. "I can't keep track of it."

lwhitehurst@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lwhitehurst —

How to help

The Utah Office of the Public Guardian is seeking donations for the 240 elderly and disabled adults under their care. They're looking for twin-size sheets, warm pajamas, sweats, shoes, hats, slippers and shirts.

For more information, call 801-538-8255 or email lbarton@utah.gov or dlrussell@utah.gov