Living alone or being isolated from others can be a frightening place, especially for those suffering from dementia or other mental illness. Many afflictions can alter a person’s ability to make even basic decisions, and with no family around to assist, this can lead to tragic consequences. This is what led to the formation of the Bonner County Board of Community Guardian, a volunteer organization that steps in to take care of those who can no longer take care of themselves.
Tami Feyen is the current board chairperson and has been a board member since 2011, when she realized the need in her community. “We are here to assist those who have no one to look out for them and oversee and tend to their needs,” said Feyen.
The board helps individuals, often the elderly, who are referred by family, friends, caregivers, neighbors or other concerned citizens. They review the person’s medical status, letter from their physician detailing the medical need for guardian/conservatorship and review the level of needs and appropriateness for possible guardian/conservator under the Idaho statutes. If there is evidence to support the need for guardianship, the person is moved into a care facility, and a board member volunteers to go through the process of court petition for guardianship and/or conservatorship.
The board decides to move forward, and the prosecuting attorney’s office completes all paperwork and files a petition on behalf of the board. “Often times, the board member who has volunteered to serve will go meet the ward prior to or during the petition process to begin to establish a relationship,” said Feyen.
The guardianship process protects the rights of the individual. Extensive medical as well as legal review is completed as part of that process. The ward has a guardian ad litem and a court visitor appointed. These persons represent the ward and ensure that their best interest is upheld through this process. There is a court hearing and evidence demonstrating possible need for guardian/ conservatorship is presented, along with court visitor report.
If the court rules the person appropriate for guardian/conservator and appoints the board in these roles, the guardian then begins to oversee the ward’s needs. All wards accepted by the board must reside in a facility where their care needs are met around the clock. The guardian oversees the ward’s needs and makes decisions in their best interest.
Guardians will often take their ward to medical appointments and social trips, if appropriate, and oversee their general life needs. They may use the ward’s funds to purchase things they need or want like new clothing. A guardian makes all decisions for the ward in their best interest as a parent would for a minor child.
Generally, board members spend a few hours a month between conferencing with care providers, visiting their wards and attending a once-a-month board meeting. “While the commitment is rather minimal, the difference you make and the rewards are monumental,” said Feyen.
Feyen recalls a few recent instances where just spending time with a ward helped the caregiver to identify additional issues and help the ward live a more comfortable life. One young woman, whose family fails to oversee her needs, suffers from severe brain damage and lives in a facility. She would cry out constantly, and no one knew why. With her guardian looking out for her and encouraging testing, it was discovered the woman was crying out in pain due to gallstones and blockage. “She had surgery and now peacefully and comfortably goes through her days without crying out,” said Feyen.
Another woman has three children, none wanting to take on the role of guardian or conservator due to a complicated relational history. Her guardian has established a relationship with her. “She feels loved and cared about; her face lights up when her guardian walks in to see her. She looks forward to her visits and outings to have her hair done, shop for clothes or have her nails done with her guardian,” said Feyen.
Becoming a volunteer begins with expressing interest, meeting with the board and going through an extensive background check. Training is provided, and the Bonner County commissioners, prosecuting attorney and office team supports the board in various ways. Board members come from all different backgrounds and experience levels and are there to support one another.
While not a function of the board, the community is also in great need of attorneys to help family members, who are willing to serve as guardian, move through the process at little cost. “There are many family members [or] friends who would be willing to serve as guardian for those they love but cannot afford the costs associated with the proceedings,” said Feyen.
Just a few hours each month can have a truly positive impact on members of the community who have no one to lean on. “This is a board of great significance. If you want to make a difference for someone, this is such a loving gift of your time and incredibly rewarding,” said Feyen. “This is real life ... and it matters.”
Those interested in learning more about volunteer opportunities can visit BonnerCountyID.gov/board-of-community-guardian or call 208.255.3098.