CARSON, NV - Thelma Kessler is 86, her husband Stanley, 87. They've been married for 36 years, but now in the sunset of their lives they are allowed to see each other for just one hour a week and a court order gives others the power to file for their divorce.
Thelma and Stanley Kessler
Thelma no longer has control of her husband's life. That's responsibility now rests with Carson City Public Guardian Debi Marzoline.
After a series of court hearings, Stanley was removed from their home and put in a nursing home. There was an allegation Thelma was starving him and she was labeled a neglectful spouse, a charge she calls ridiculous.
Marzoline has sought and received a court order mandating that Thelma's visits to Stanley at the Eagle Valley Care Center be supervised. She's not allowed to say anything that might upset him.
In fact, when she tried to tell Stanley KOLO 8 News Now was doing a story on him, she was interrupted. Thelma says she's careful at these moments since even this limited access to her husband can be taken away, again by Judge James Wilson's court order.
But the judge's order also gave Marzoline an even more surprising power over this married couple. If need be she can file for divorce on Stanley's behalf.
Marzoline says she's never had to do that, but it remains an option. Stanley's $1,500 Social Security check apparently isn't covering the full cost of his care. She'd like to file for Medicaid benefits, but says the federal agency requires financial information on the couple.
Thelma receives Social Security checks too, but brought other assets into the marriage. Their mobile home in Carson City is in her name. Deeply distrustful of Marzoline and everyone else on the other side, and still hopeful of gaining control of her husband, she's refused to provide that information.
Unfortunately, no one knows how Stanley feels about all of this. According to court records he was diagnosed with dementia, but it isn't clear to what degree he's impaired.
An attorney who's worked for the Public Guardian argues any conversation with Stanley is not reality, but it was noted during a hearing in the case that, although he's hard of hearing and may have some memory loss, he's able to discuss books he's read.
We visited him a few weeks ago and had a wide ranging conversation which kept returning to his separation from his wife.
Keith Tierney, the former head of Washoe County's Senior Law Project, says it's critical in these cases to get a updated evaluation by a physician. In Washoe County, he says, there's a lengthy form required at the hearing. There's no such form evident in the file on this case.
Tierney says Stanley's input is what is missing from the case. He adds Stanley had a right to be at those hearing, even under Nevada law a right to his own counsel.
He adds that a court appointed master could perhaps cut through the history of conflict and mistrust and lead to some sort of solution.
And he says, the Guardian system could use more resources and reform, a designated court.
Marzoline is the lone guardian in Carson City with a staff of two part timers and she serves the same role in Storey County. Her staffing level is the principal reason, she says, for the one hour per week restriction on the Kessler's visits.
She says this case should teach us all to make decisions about long term care long before we need them.\
Thelma just wants her husband back. "He's crippled. He's lonely. I love my husband and they've taken him away."