Monday, September 14, 2009

Focus on Elder Mediation

14 September 2009

Elder Mediation creates a safe space for dialogue about challenging issues that come with changing circumstances in life. Each family’s needs are different. Issues involved in Elder Mediation may include:

  • Estate Planning & Trust Arrangements,
  • Housing & Living Arrangements,
  • Care giving & Health Care Planning,
  • Financial Management & Consumer Issues,
  • Guardianship & Conservatorship Issues,
  • Decisions about inheritance, and
  • Settlement of Estates when heirs disagree.

Any person may suggest a mediaton, and the Elder is involved in the mediation to the fullest extent possible.  Mediation strives to preserve the autonomy, independence, and dignity of the Elder while accommodating practical and financial needs including care giving and safety.  

Ideally, a family will call in a mediator to facilitate discussion before a crisis occurs. This will ensure that thoughtful well-considered strategies for dealing with life transitions are put in place at a time when many options are still open.  When done early in the process, planning can be proactive rather than reactive.

A mediator is often called in after a crisis has occurred.  When faced with a crisis, the Elder and different members of the family may individually come up with different answers to the question, “What’s next?”  Big decisions must be made on short time frames and with limited information.  This is fine. The mediator is a professional.  Elder mediators do not make decisions for families, but they can point families to resources and facilitate the process of decision making.  In this way, they help families manage conflict peacefully. 

Elder mediators are aware of the stresses and challenges posed by aging family members. Caregiver burnout and inheritance issues are common in families. The conversations that are required to deal with these issues are difficult ones. Health, financial and care giving concerns are serious issues, demanding that all family members weigh in with their views. The answers to how problems will be addressed often, as well, depend on very personal values. The challenges of aging, and of caring for an aging parent, will require various family members to draw on resources, sometime on sheer inner strength, that they didn’t even realize they had.

Regardless of the context or timing, Elder Mediation builds up families by helping them come to agreement and face these challenges in a unified, cohesive manner. In this way, mediation may actually heal fractured relationships and restore family unity. At a minimum, Elder Mediation offers the promise of helping families come up with agreements that everyone can live with, even if no solution seems 100% perfect.

The mediator is not a “counselor,” but neither do most families desire “therapy”. They just need help working out a solution that everyone can live with. A mediator guides family meetings, sets ground rules and referees the conversation so that difficult topics can be discussed in a neutral and safe environment. This setting enables families to overcome the emotional hurdles preventing healthy communication.



A mediation done in this way often takes the form of a family meeting, led by the mediator in such a way as to create the space for everyone in the family to be heard on an important developing family transition. Conflict addressed in this way may be dealt with in a healthy way, before hard feelings or grievances have a chance to fester or polarize the parties.

As family members seek fair ways of sharing the burdens and resources of the family, their individual perceptions and personal feelings are important. Using Elder Mediation to address tensions may avoid the feeling (or actuality) of exclusion of family members. It also avoids having the entire burden of care, or of decision making, fall on one person, whether that person is the Elder themselves, a spouse, or one particular child. Securing adequate assistance from a unified family may actually prevent abusive or neglectful behavior by overwhelmed caregivers.  

Families on the journey toward planning for old age may find themselves not only in territory they aren’t familiar with (estate planning, trusts, advance care directives, home health care, assisted living choices, etc.) but also they may find that when siblings and adult parents must come together to face these issues, they may come face to face with feelings from their past that bubble up and make clear thinking difficult.

Unresolved tensions that may have simmered below the surface can resurface and make family conversations very difficult. Siblings who have lived apart for many years may have developed differences in their own geographic, economic and immediate family structures. As a result of these challenges, they may find it challenging to work together. Angry words may be spoken, and thoughtful decision making can seem all but impossible. 

Even when the angry words are not spoken, an appearance of “peace” may not be truly peaceful at all.  Underneath the still waters, there may be a turbulent bed of emotions.  Mediation seeks to help parties find an authentic peace, not a faked one. 

In conclusion, mediators with specialized knowledge in areas related to estates, financial planning, physical care, mental and emotional needs, and community resources, can help facilitate family discussions about matters relating to safety, finances and capabilities while keeping in mind the senior’s desire for individual control and respect.  If you are interested in talking with me about any issue that may be resolved through mediation, take a look at my mediation web site, HERE.


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