Katie Brietzman is passionate about equipping volunteers to help elderly people make important life and financial decisions. 

Brietzman is the volunteer guardian program coordinator at NewBridge, a group that was created when four individual groups serving older adults merged in January. The new group now offers several consolidated programs to help seniors with a variety of needs, including home chores, meals and finances.

Two key initiatives to help older adults with finances are NewBridge's guardianship and representative payee programs. Brietzman recruits and trains volunteers and matches them with senior citizens who need help managing their finances.

Volunteers become certified through Wisconsin's circuit court system and the Social Security Administration in order to make decisions on behalf of the senior citizens with whom they work.  Brietzman developed the representative payee program — the only one of its kind in the state — in 2006. She spoke with the Cap Times about the program, how it saves money for Dane County and how it works with volunteers.

What do you do as a program coordinator?

My job is twofold: to get word out about (these programs) to the aging community, to let people know that this program is out there to make referrals, and the other part is getting word out to the community to find volunteers, so trying to recruit. Then I interview and train volunteers and I give ongoing support to those volunteers.  I (also) do one-on-one consultations.

Can you explain more about how the guardian and the representative payee programs work?

The representative payee program is through the Social Security Administration, so you have to apply through them to become a representative payee. They manage only the Social Security funds for the senior and so it’s for people who are having problems. Maybe there is a bit of memory loss. Sometimes we find that there might be some financial exploitation happening, so (these seniors) are at risk. It might be that they’re at risk of losing their housing because rent is not getting paid or getting their medicines because they’re not getting their pharmacy bill paid. Things like that. The volunteer then gets assigned to it and determines what that person’s budget is, and what their needs are. (The volunteer) is responsible for making sure their daily needs are being met financially.

Then the guardianship program: there are two types of guardians, a "guardian of person" and a "guardian of estate." The guardian of estate would become the representative payee as well. The guardian of estate is responsible for managing the whole estate of that person. It could be there is a pension, it could be that (the senior has) a savings account... and it’s overseeing all of that and seeing that that person’s needs are being met.

The "guardian of person" is the person that’s responsible legally, and the guardianship is a legal process through the state of Wisconsin, through the court system, when someone is deemed “incompetent.” That is the term that has to be used. They are responsible for making decisions for that person as far as their health, their social needs, and making sure their rights are being defended, so (it's) making decisions for a person who is no longer able to do that.

What led to the creation of these programs?

The reason this program was started back in ‘01 or ‘02 was because here in Dane County we recognized there was a real need for trained and supported volunteers. There are corporations that get paid to do this (type of) care. There are companies that charge to be guardians for people. What happens is those payments are made through county funding. So this program is so that we could have quality people making decisions because our volunteers are assigned one-to-one.

There is usually only one volunteer to one person so they develop a relationship with that person. They are doing it because they want to give back to the community. They’re impacting that person’s life and so when we developed this it was to be able to provide for people in Dane County. The people we’re serving are the most vulnerable adults in our community and they don’t usually have a lot of money.

About how many volunteers do you have and how much money do you think the program has saved the county?

Right now between the rep-payee and the guardianship program, I have about 90 or 95 volunteers. When you put that into perspective as far as how much that would cost the community, it’s astounding. I’ve estimated it to be around $10,000 to $15,000 a month. And then you times that by 12 months, (that's) $150,000 to $200,000, give or take, times how many years this program has been in place. This program has saved the county maybe $1.5 million because we’re not paying people to do this. If there wasn't this program there would be a real need, of "How do we pay for guardians for this?" And that would be very taxing on the community.

What are you seeing as far as demand for services and the numbers of volunteers you’re able to attract?

There is an increasing demand as we see the population age. I am seeing that. I think some of the challenges I have from that is getting the word out. Because when you see a need for a guardian it’s like, "Wow, I don’t know that I could do that," when in reality you just have to be able to have common sense, compassion and a desire to really make a difference in one person’s life.


Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.