Recently making the rounds is a breathtakingly tragic story of an elderly gay couple that Sonoma County, California allegedly forcibly separated into different nursing homes, before possessing and selling off their property. It’s an incredibly upsetting story, so please be aware of that when making the decision to read further. From the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), which is helping Clay with his lawsuit:
Clay and his partner of 20 years, Harold, lived in California. Clay and Harold made diligent efforts to protect their legal rights, and had their legal paperwork in place—wills, powers of attorney, and medical directives, all naming each other. Harold was 88 years old and in frail medical condition, but still living at home with Clay, 77, who was in good health.
One evening, Harold fell down the front steps of their home and was taken to the hospital. Based on their medical directives alone, Clay should have been consulted in Harold’s care from the first moment. Tragically, county and health care workers instead refused to allow Clay to see Harold in the hospital. The county then ultimately went one step further by isolating the couple from each other, placing the men in separate nursing homes.
Ignoring Clay’s significant role in Harold’s life, the county continued to treat Harold like he had no family and went to court seeking the power to make financial decisions on his behalf. Outrageously, the county represented to the judge that Clay was merely Harold’s “roommate.” The court denied their efforts, but did grant the county limited access to one of Harold’s bank accounts to pay for his care.
What happened next is even more chilling: without authority, without determining the value of Clay and Harold’s possessions accumulated over the course of their 20 years together or making any effort to determine which items belonged to whom, the county took everything Harold and Clay owned and auctioned off all of their belongings. Adding further insult to grave injury, the county removed Clay from his home and confined him to a nursing home against his will. The county workers then terminated Clay and Harold’s lease and surrendered the home they had shared for many years to the landlord.
Three months after he was hospitalized, Harold died in the nursing home. Because of the county’s actions, Clay missed the final months he should have had with his partner of 20 years. Compounding this tragedy, Clay has literally nothing left of the home he had shared with Harold or the life he was living up until the day that Harold fell, because he has been unable to recover any of his property. The only memento Clay has is a photo album that Harold painstakingly put together for Clay during the last three months of his life.
This story instantly reminds me of one that I blogged about last year, regarding Janice Langbehn and Lisa Marie Pond. As Lisa died, her partner of 17 years, Janice, was not allowed to see her in the hospital. Neither were their three children. While the abuse of Clay and Harold extended well beyond visitation rights, this core part of the story is tragically not unheard of. There are certainly many other couples who had their rights similarly violated but did not make the news.
Last week, President Obama issued a directive requiring hospitals to allow visitation rights to patients’ same-sex partners, as well as to other designated visitors. This action was apparently inspired by Janice and Lisa’s story, and Janice’s persistent activism. Obama even called Janice and apologized to her for what she endured. It’s a noble and necessary action, and one that I certainly hope will be enforced effectively.
But it’s too late for Harold and Lisa to spend the end of their lives with their partners. It’s too late for Clay and Janice to say goodbye. It’s also too late for Clay to retain his property, or to get back the months of his life he lost while forcibly confined to a nursing home. And it didn’t have to happen. In a world that treated all people, all partnerships, all love as equal, and in a world that respected LGBT rights, and in Clay and Harold’s case elder rights, it wouldn’t have happened.
I’m at a loss for words, but s.e. smith has much more.
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