The 87-year-old wore a silk dress she had sewn herself. The bright blue fabric featuring yellow, turquoise and lavender flowers pulled at the eyes, and against it, the pale pink stones of her necklace seemed a conservative choice. But that’s not why she wore it.
With a smile, she explained that she had picked the beads less for the statement they made than for the promise they held.
“They’re supposed to help you get a boyfriend,” she said, laughing.
When the woman tells people she is not far from 90, they show genuine surprise. She has not yet let her hair turn white and she speaks with a well-earned wit. She also takes care of most of her needs by herself, getting dressed on her own, taking the right amount of medications as needed and making appointments that she gets to herself by using public transportation. She recently enrolled in a college class after deciding she wants to learn Italian.
Each of these details matters, because it speaks not only to her personality but also to her capabilities. Despite all that, she was deemed an “incapacitated individual” — unable to make choices for herself. But that changed this month.
The octogenarian is the first senior citizen in the District to convince a court to terminate a guardianship placed on her in favor of “supported decision-making.” She and her attorneys successfully argued that with help from people in her life, she could make her own decisions and did not need a court-appointed guardian to do that for her.
Guardianship is often associated with people who develop or are born with intellectual disabilities. But this case shows why it should matter to everyone. As we age, and the lucky among us will, we all risk losing what we value most: the ability to choose how we live.
Putting legal protections in place will ensure that we have to give that up only when it is absolutely necessary.
“I felt very annoyed by having someone else taking care of everything,” said the woman, who for privacy reasons spoke on the condition that she be identified only by her middle name, Dolores. “I am the boss. I can do whatever I need to do.”
Her case marks the first time that the District’s supported decision-making law, which was passed in May, has been cited in court to help a resident regain independence. Most of us have friends or relatives we turn to for advice. This is the same as that — but more. The D.C. law formalizes those relationships and requires institutions and organizations to recognize the role of people who serve in those supportive positions. The District is only the fourth jurisdiction in the country to pass the law, after Texas, Delaware and Wisconsin. (Virginia and Maryland — are you listening?)
“You’re a pioneer in many ways,” Morgan Whitlatch, the legal director for Quality Trust for Individuals with Disabilities, which handled Dolores’s case, told her recently as we sat in her apartment in Northwest Washington. “You weren’t scared to fight.”
“I had to fight against everybody,” Dolores replied.
In 2015, Dolores was facing possible eviction from a subsidized senior building after falling behind on her rent, according to court documents. Her landlord agreed to work out a payment plan if she was assigned a guardian to help her with her finances, and so she agreed to one.
But once she regained financial stability, she asked her guardian to file a letter with the court saying she no longer needed him. When she realized he failed to do that, she went to the court on her own and wrote a complaint.
She also called AARP, and the organization directed her to Quality Trust.
Years earlier, Quality Trust had handled a case in which the stakes also involved an individual’s independence. A 29-year-old woman with Down syndrome named Margaret “Jenny” Hatch had fought in a Virginia court against a guardianship request by her parents. They wanted her to remain in a group home, supervised and protected. She wanted to move in with friends and continue working at a thrift shop they owned.
When the judge denied her parents’ guardianship request in August 2013, Jenny cried and exclaimed, “Oh my God. I’m so happy to go home today. I deserve it. It’s over. My God, it’s over.”
Her lawyer, Jonathan Martinis, declared, “For anyone who has been told you can’t do something, you can’t make your own decisions, I give you Jenny Hatch — the rock that starts the avalanche.”
Dolores didn’t know it, but she was swept into that avalanche. Her case was handled through the Jenny Hatch Justice Project, which is run through Quality Trust and funded by the DC Bar Foundation to assist low-income District residents.
“For me, this is exciting because this is groundbreaking,” Whitlatch told Dolores that day at her apartment. “I hope this is going to transfer over to how we treat older adults. You being able to have this fight means maybe they won’t have to fight as hard.”
For Dolores, the court’s decision has simply meant she can now do what she has always done: take care of herself.
When she was 5 years old and growing up in South America, she said her parents used to put her on a train with her brothers, who were 4 and 6, and told her to watch them until they arrived at their grandparent’s house three hours away.
Later, when she moved to the United States, she worked for the State Department and then handled bilingual translations for several government agencies, including the Library of Congress and the Labor Department.
Dolores recognizes that she is not able to do everything alone now. But she said that for every problem she encounters, she knows whom to call. She has a person who helps her when she has health insurance issues and one who helps when she has medical questions. Recently, after someone stole her wallet, she knew exactly who could help her get a new Metro card.
“It makes you feel powerful to be in charge of your own life,” she said. “You can have a lot of help everywhere, but you are your own boss.”
Still, she said, she worries about the future, about whether one day she will be told that she can no longer live alone in her apartment.
She knows all too well what many of us, thankfully, have not yet had to learn — the suddenness with which life can change.