In the wake of the Free Britney movement, the Nichols conservatorship has drawn a lot of press attention and come into question from many sides — so much so that ABC covered the situation on their May 10th edition of their news interview show, Who Do You Believe?, featuring a chronicle of the case from the perspectives of both Gilbert Bell, Nichols’s former business manager, and her son, Kyle Johnson. Bell, who is accused of financially exploiting Nichols, has made his position against the conservatorship known multiple times. However, there are also those who question everything from her son’s decision to sell her house and move her to New Mexico with him to the conservatorship itself. Some have seen it as unwarranted, extreme — they think Nichols could still manage her affairs with simple assistance. Hence, the growing concern over possible abuse and wrongdoing.
Steve Carlie, my father, was a Star Trek fan. Because of him, I know and love Nichelle Nichols for the work she has done and all that she stands for. The fact is, Nichelle and my father have a lot in common. Both had a place in the sciences, Nichelle as an ambassador for NASA and figurehead for STEM, and my father as an x-ray technician borderline obsessed with radiology. Both were parents who came to rely on their children later in life for their care when their health deteriorated — and like my father, she was, seemingly, unprepared for the unexpected dangers that come with that deterioration that comes with age.
DISCLAIMER: This is an editorial, with all opinions, thoughts, and beliefs belonging to and representing the author, and the author alone.
This story discusses issues surrounding elder abuse allegations and family caregivers. If you or someone you know is a family caregiver — perhaps even YOUR caregiver — please check out the Family Caregiver Alliance for important information and resources.
In addition, if you are a caregiver in need of mental health support, please visit NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. If you are in crisis, please know that you are not alone, you are valued, and that there is help as well as hope. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.
I use the word ‘seemingly’ very deliberately here — one of the most misunderstood jobs in the world is that of familial caregiver. On Who Do You Believe?, Bell and Johnson’s accounts discuss the appointment of Johnson as conservator of Nichols. While Bell believes this is a case of a son exploiting his mother’s wealth, Johnson puts forth that he is protecting his mother’s interests, both personal and professional.
The show is well done, but is left lacking due to its absence of support for any facts in the case. They remain as ephemeral as the opinions put forth by both men. Despite that, it perfectly casts the core problem in stark relief: at the end of the day, we as the public will never truly know what the facts of this case are. I know this, because I lived it.
When caring for my father, I faced similar allegations to the ones made more recently against Johnson. Bell recorded a visit with Nichols that ends with Nichols screaming at her son when he tries to remove her from the situation. It’s disturbing to hear, but for me it’s like going back in time. The release of this audio and video by bell resulted in a visit from the LAPD to the Nichols residence – not uncommon in a situation where Adult Protective Services is called into action.
In my own situation, the calls to APS came from city employees like the fire department paramedics that answered the calls to take Dad to the emergency room on a regular basis. With the difficulties I faced in looking after him, anyone who wasn’t close to the situation could easily misconstrue his situation as one of abuse. The APS visits were stressful for me, and sometimes even traumatic, but for the benefit of elderly people across the country like Nichols and my father, this kind of scrutiny is, sadly, quite necessary.
According to the National Council on Aging, up to five million older Americans are abused every year, and the annual loss by victims of financial abuse is estimated to be at least $36.5 billion. People like Nichelle Nichols, my father, and countless members of the traditional fandom community, fall into that category of older Americans, many of whom have limited access to resources.
Of course, while abuses both physical and sexual in nature are reprehensible, financial abuse and exploitation may be the worst crimes that can be committed against the elderly. Due to the brutal inadequacies of care options, money can mean the difference between someone spending their golden years in good health, safety, and contentment and suffering abuses that can leave deep psychological scars, or even result in death.
Nichols, who owned her own home in a high end neighborhood and was working regularly, regardless as to whether or not it was by Bell’s or her own design, to all assumptions had enough financial security to provide for her own care down the line. As such, with semi-regular visits from his home in New Mexico, Johnson had no reason to believe his mother might be in a compromised situation with her wits about her.
Dad wasn’t so lucky, living on a fixed income. In addition, he was a single amputee who didn’t look after his own health adequately, and was soon left bedridden. He was dependent on me not only as a caregiver, but for added financial support as I struggled to balance both a full time job and looking after him. Prior to his death in 2017, I was his primary caregiver for over a decade for the simple reason that he had no resources…and federally available Medicare doesn’t cover many of the services needed to support familial caregivers.
This is where Gilbert Bell comes in. In his testimony during Who Do You Believe?, he paints a rather rosy picture of a woman in full control of her faculties extending him the hand of friendship and even her hand in marriage. The fact is, much of this story he shares takes place after her dementia diagnosis, meaning that any decision she made was questionable, and renders many of his actions criminal.
I experienced similar issues during my father’s lifetime. Dementia is not the only medical condition that can render an elderly person incapable of making their own choices, and unfortunately without the close attention of caregivers, these conditions can often be mistaken for dementia. Dad was severely diabetic, and suffered acute renal insufficiency resulting in multiple UTI’s (urinary tract infections). These are painfully common in older people, and one of the most common symptoms in the elderly – sometimes the only symptom — is severe confusion and memory issues.
Unfortunately, to present a balanced narrative, a devil’s advocate is needed. Assuming Bell’s accounts are all true, and his intentions were only ever pure, many of his actions were still wrong. He claims that, while giving Johnson a lift to head back to New Mexico after their very first meeting, Johnson went on about how he wanted to exploit his mother and his hatred of her legacy — this is, plainly, as unlikely as anything, but postulate for one moment that it’s true.
Were this the case, were he rendering the aid of a friend or even a caregiver, Bell would not have allowed Nichols to make her own medical decisions, would not let her have visit an attorney to give him control of her affairs. He might have moved on his own for something like a conservatorship, but the fact that he did not may shed some needed light on the situation: that, perhaps, he would have been denied or exposed for financial exploitation.
One of the biggest mistakes I made during my father’s lifetime was not pushing harder for such control. Stubbornly, when he had full control of his faculties he feared that loss of control, so much so he nearly lost his Social Security when he could not go to a bank to cash his own check, and felt naming me as a representative payee was too close to guardianship or conservatorship for his liking. With no resources for an attorney nor support to look after my father, conservatorship wasn’t an option for me to pursue.
Which brings us to the matter at hand: the conservatorship, under Kyle Johnson and not Gilbert Bell. As a familial caregiver, I am in a unique position to address speculation regarding his position and his actions, as well as posed to offer a clearer assessment of the facts known to the public, and presented in Who Do You Believe?
This can most easily be done by going back to the footage Bell leaked — audio and video of Nichols screaming at her son, proclaiming she trusted Bell alone.
At this point, it’s pretty clear that Bell had none of her interests at heart — the fact that he absconded with her from a skilled nursing facility (SNF) was clear evidence of that. A combination of ageism in medicine and insurance restrictions, such as those imposed by Medicare, often result in older patients being discharged far too early from hospitalization. In addition, Medicare itself pays for only one hundred days in a SNF per benefit period, and only twenty of those days are covered fully, with a copay on the remaining eighty — depending on the severity of an illness, and the prematurity of a hospital discharge, this can be a drop in the bucket in terms of a standard of care that barely approaches adequate.
So while Bell speaks to Nichols in the video, gentle and friendly as anything, he is not the one with a vested interest in Nichols’ care. Rather, it is Johnson — brusque, yes, perhaps not altogether gentle — who is there for Nichelle in this footage, and not Bell.
Kyle Johnson is a resident of New Mexico. He moved, for a time, to California to care for his mother in a crisis. His wife, his community, his resources, were not present. On top of that, the presence of Gilbert Bell on the property added to his stress, to the danger Nichols was in…
We do not know what kind of support he had. He has an aunt in Nichols’ sister, Marian Nichols Smothers, but was she there to aid with her sister’s care? If so, how much?
Caring for an elderly relative, especially one with cognitive issues, is more arduous and more extreme than one could ever dare to imagine. It’s more than preparing food, cleaning, bathing, assistance with walking. It’s more than handling finances, housing, bills, services, and medical care.
Familial caregivers are, at their best and their worst, victims. They must be responsible, totally, for another human life besides their own, not one that will grow and learn as children do, but one who will continue to degrade and eventually leave them. They must become doctors themselves, not to merely oversee proper care of their charges but to act in a crisis where a doctor is not present. To this same end, they must become nurses to manage medication and health, and they must become aides to aid with bodily functions and other undignified, even unspeakable aspects of home healthcare not meant for laymen to handle.
They must do all this, and do it with an understanding that they will do it alone. Some, with resources and able bodies in their inner circle, may find they are wrong and in this find hope. However, far too many of these caregivers discover they are right.
They will bear up under this burden as long as they can, and some of them will crack. This can lead to institutionalization, and with no resources, the possibility for true abuse to take place. Others will bear up, but given enough time they will crumble. Bit by bit, they will be consumed by their charge. They will forget themselves, forget their humanity, forget their desires. They will do their job, lose their lives to the task of care, but in the end they will become what they feel: exhaustion, despair, pain, frustration, rage, hatred.
The shortness in that clip, and in the security camera footage ABC also aired with Kyle telling his mother she was ruining her life. If he was caring for his mother alone, if the nature of care she required was extensive enough — perhaps even if it wasn’t — wasn’t abuse. It was a brief and tragic glimpse of what waits for every person who must take up this act of service alone: a loss of personal humanity that won’t extend to the ward, but will destroy the caregiver.
Now, Johnson is in New Mexico with his wife and mother. Nichols is being cared for, with money from the sale of her house put into accounting for this necessity. At the recent Los Angeles Comic Con, she made her last public convention appearance. All that saw her noted her health and good spirits, and in the ABC show, Kyle was moved to tears talking about those who thanked him for what he was doing.
If Gilbert Bell was truly as interested in taking care of Nichelle as he claimed — if he really was just looking after her all this time, and cared for her at all? The footage he leaked would never have seen the light of day, much less been recorded in the first place, because he would have understood. He would have been more interested in helping her than “exposing” her son. He’s interested in her money and nothing else.
It’s something all who read this should consider, as members of traditional science fiction fandom continue to grow older themselves. Conservatorship of the elderly, by its very nature, should hold to a different standard over conservatorship of the young. With conservatorship, Kyle Johnson is capable of advocating for Nichols as he would for himself when it comes to her health, her finances, and her wellbeing. Being unable to do so for Dad likely hurt his health, as I had to jump through innumerable hoops to monitor his health care and ensure his doctors listened to me when he was mentally compromised. Ultimately, it might have even given him more time if I were able to make more and better choices for him.
Supportive care, not just for the elderly but for those who look after them, is desperately needed. Respite care, better insurance coverage of services like cooking, cleaning, and home nursing – all of these can protect and attend to the health of everyone, and are severely lacking in this country without paying high insurance costs many cannot afford.
There are steps we can all take to see to our own care as we age, or even if we simply get sick and can’t quite fend for ourselves. Serious discussions with close friends and family help, but it benefits everyone to have an advance directive: something, in writing, that states your wishes in a medical situation, including who you want to make your decisions for you. Putting things in writing, recording your wishes, documentation before the fact, these are all steps you can take, today, in order to ensure you are cared for in a manner you desire, and that people you trust are looking out for your best interests. It also helps you to look out for them – sparing them the stressful and traumatic ordeal that Nichols and her family have had to endure.
Because, at the end of the day, when it comes down to it? Caring for the elderly isn’t a job anyone wants – not even those who love them, but they will fight you to the death before they allow anyone else to do it.
There is an existing GoFundMe to cover the legal expenses associated with suing Gilbert Bell for damages against Nichelle Nichols. If you’d like to make a contribution, please click here.
Liz Carlie (she/her/he/him) is a regular book, TV, and film reviewer for SCIFI.radio and has previously been a guest on ‘The Event Horizon’. In addition to being an active member of the traditional fandom community, she’s also an active participant in online fan culture, pro wrestling journalism, and spreading the gospel of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She resides in Southern California with her aspiring superhero dog, Junior, enjoying life one hyperfixation at a time.