John Oliver talks senior guardianship on Last Week Tonight


John Oliver tackles the issues of guardianship for seniors on Last Week Tonight, along with a brief interlude about deadly hippos

Tonight, we’re talking about guardianship. That is, the court-appointed legal kind, particularly the guardians involved with senior citizens.

“Many senior citizens remain active and independent,” said Oliver. One woman whose interview was included was also alarmingly proud of outliving people.

Currently, over 49 million Americans are 65 and older, including apparent murderers like the sweet old woman quoted above (just watch the show to see). Those numbers are expected to increase, something called a “Silver Tsunami.” That image that just popped up in your head is probably worse than it needs to be.

“Unavoidably, some of us are going to need extra care,” said Oliver. That’s why we’re talking about guardianship, given that quite a few of us may be dealing with guardians either for family members or ourselves.

What’s guardianship, anyway?

“Guardianship is an important, valuable tool,” Oliver reminded the audience. A court might appoint a family member or a private, paid person as someone’s guardian, depending on the situation.

“When the system works, it’s great,” he said. But, listen buddy, this is Last Week Tonight. Hope you didn’t come here for something as pedestrian as happiness and cheer. Of course, we’re here to talk about what can go wrong.

Take Rudy and Rennie North, who were effectively cornered by officers of the court who forced them to choose between calling the police, psychiatric evaluation, or assisted living. It took them two years and most of their money to get away from the court-appointed stranger who was ostensibly in charge of their care. More on that stranger, a woman named April Parks, in just a second.

When numbers don’t add up

More people are subject to guardianship than you think. Most recent figures put it at about $1.3 million people. And those guardians? They are in charge of everything, from financial accounts to something as vital as voting rights.

One person quoted said that guardianship involves so much control that people under the system have fewer rights than prisoners

As if having your right to vote curtailed want scary enough, it turns out that guardians have the right to charge for dang near anything. April Parks, the North’s guardian, charged large amounts for her clients. When confronted, she said she’d be happy to reverse the charges. “This is someone’s life, not just a Missy Elliot song,” said Oliver.

Someone like Rennie and Rudy Parks’ guardian can have hundreds of clients and many more hundreds of billing hours. In case you haven’t checked recently, there are only 24 hours in a day. So, perhaps more often than we would like to hear about, something wrong is going on.

Science break

If this is getting heavy, take a bit of a break. Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson dropped in to correct a joke custom made for him. “What is wrong with you?” wailed Oliver. “You feckless… Ah, never mind”.

And what if someone’s ward happens to die? It’s a grim produced, to be sure, but a prevalent one. Someone’s loved one might just end up in an urn in a storage unit. That’s courtesy of, yep, one April Parks. She was eventually arrested on felony charges, mainly to do with financial fraud. The urns in a storage unit, horrifying as they might be, however, weren’t actually illegal.

“That fact is, guardianship is the responsibility of state and local courts,” Oliver said. This means that things are up to local judges, who are elected, not appointed, and who may have little training. In many places, they and their courts are so overworked that they may very well not have the resources to actually help people.

Currently, only 12 states require professional guardians to be certified. In fact, states generally don’t require that guardians even have a background check before handling thousands and even millions of dollars. Remember, this is a difficult system to escape, add in the case if the Norths and many others like them.

What to do in your own life

“I am not saying that guardianship as a system is inherently bad,” said Oliver. But, clearly, there are major issues inherent in the current system.

What can you do to avoid being taken advantage of in your own old age? First, have honest conversations with your family, which is, of course, a “nightmare” as Oliver described it, but necessary. Tell them how you want yourself and your money to be taken care of.

There are also concrete legal steps you can take. Think documents like living wills, for instance.

If that sounds overwhelming, Oliver had some senior actors on hand to prep you.

Well, okay, there was a “whole hippo thing” to get to first, but it didn’t hurt to hear Cloris Leachman reminding you about these aquatic murderers for a second.

Next: John Oliver unveils the truth of rehab centers on Last Week Tonight

After that, William Shatner, Lily Tomlin, and more urged everyone to choose a guardian now. Seriously, find a lawyer and get all of your paperwork and various affairs together. Before one of those killing machine hippos gets a hold of you, anyway.