John Oliver exposed the troubling flaws of the guardianship system on Sunday’s Last Week Tonight, detailing how court-appointed individuals often abuse their power while assisting people with mental or physical disabilities, particularly the elderly, who can’t make responsible decisions about their health or finances.
The comedian opened the exhaustive segment with some startling statistics. There are currently 49.2 million Americans aged 65 or older, and that figure is expected to surge in what some experts have dubbed the “Silver Tsunami.” As ages rise, so does the need for guardianship, and 1.3 million people currently require such services.
Guardians wield major power over the people under their care, or “wards” – since they’re making important decisions about health and finances, they have access to people’s bank accounts and health records.
“Guardians can bill for each individual service they provide, from leaving voice messages to opening the mail. And they can take payment directly out of their ward’s estate,” Oliver said, exploring how the system often leads to absurd charges that can cripple a person’s finances. In one egregious example, a guardian charged a woman for Phoenix Suns basketball tickets, tacking on $228 for determining the game’s “effect on [her] mood.” Another billed for 100 hours of services in a single day – a mathematic impossibility that Oliver anchored home with a science joke.
“One hundred hours a day is not physically possible, unless she was working on the planet Mercury, where, as we all know, each day lasts 1,407 Earth hours,” he said. “I’ll be honest: That’s a joke designed specifically for Neil deGrasse Tyson, so I do hope you enjoyed it, Dr. Tyson, because absolutely nobody else did.”
Dr. Tyson, in a pre-recorded response, interjected to question the definition of a “day” on Mercury, irritating Oliver. “Shut up, Neil! Shut up! Why do you have to ruin everything?” the host fumed, later throwing in a half-reference to Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal “feckless cunt” controversy. “Just enjoy something for once in your fucking life! What is wrong with you, you feckless – oh, nevermind. It’s not worth it.”
Oliver clarified that guardianship is the responsibility of state and local courts, “meaning in most places everything about it – from who becomes one to who they oversee to what they can charge is up to local charges, who may be elected and may have no legal training.” In Texas, for example, county judges handle guardianship decisions, and only 29 of them are lawyers. Equally shocking, only 12 states require professional guardians to be certified at all.
With the “Silver Tsunami” approaching, Oliver said, it’s crucial to outline with your family how your care and finances should be handled in such a scenario. To iron home that point, Last Week Tonight recruited a group of famous seniors – William Shatner, Cloris Leachman, Lily Tomlin, Fred Willard and Rita Moreno – to offer some pointers about aging, or not. “You may not age at all,” they said. “You may die tonight, young, by getting hit by lightning or eating too many Tide pods or getting killed by a hippo. That’s actually a lot more likely than you think.”
The celebrities recommended selecting someone to serve as a health care representative and “durable power-of-attorney” should the need arise. Their suggestion? National treasure Tom Hanks.