Caring Currents

6 Surprising Reasons Elder Mediation Might Help

Last updated: Feb 12, 2009

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There's little that's more frustrating than doing your best in a situation involving the welfare of an elder -- only to have your choices criticized or opposed by a sibling, parent, or other family member. Hello super stress.

Family disagreements are nothing new. But when you're all grown-ups, you can't slug it out in the backyard or send anybody to their room. At least, not if you plan to resolve anything. That leaves nitpicking, debating, raising voices -- or ceasing to talk to one another altogether. And when that's not productive, then what?

That's when you can try something relatively new: Elder mediation.

You might think of mediators in connection with the Middle East or high-profile corporate disputes. But many family mediators specialize in handling situations related to aging or ill relatives. They're a fast-growing subset of the mediation world.

If you're like me,; the very word "mediator" may at first ring complicated -- and expensive. But a closer look convinces me that elder mediators are actually one of the many unsung heroes of elder-care conundrums. They know how to get competing viewpoints aired in a constructive way and move past family dynamics (like, "once the baby, always the baby," even if you're 50-plus). Critically, they also understand the unique issues of aging.

So, 6 surprising reasons elder mediation might help:

  1. To slice your stress level in half. If you're a hands-on caregiver, why waste your slim-to-nonexistent energy on bickering or defending yourself, when an independent figure with listening and problem-solving skills can become the magnet for high-running emotions? (Not to mention push family members past blame and toward a common goal.)
  2. To help everybody move on (whether you all end up sending birthday cards to one another or not). Hard situations can gum up families for years. Mediators tackle toughies like charges of favoritism by a parent, step-family tangles, who should handle financial or legal affairs, or an abusive or uncaring parent who's come back in everyone's lives needing help. If everyone is willing to come to the table aiming for a solution, the odds increase that one can be
  3. found.
  4. To help an aging parent's wish for family harmony come true. Parents hate knowing they're "causing anybody any trouble" and hate to be the cause of rifts. And they know when they are. Most elder mediation sessions helpfully involve the central figure, even in cases of dementia, unless they're too infirm to be able to contribute.
  5. To make a plan. You don't need a Hatfield-McCoy-level feud to see a mediator. A calm, neutral forum is a great way to sort through confusing options on where an older relative should live or painful, emotionally-charged ones where nobody's sure what to do, like end of life care.
  6. To get far-flung families on the same page. Ideally all the parties get together to hash out a conflict. But mediators will usually work with those who are long distance, after a starter group session or by conference call.
  7. To save money. Especially these days, it can seem unreasonable to spend money solving an argument. Initial elder mediation consults are often free, then cost $150 and up per hour, varying by area. Some issues can be resolved in just a session or two, others longer. But mediating a conflict (especially over questions of guardianship or estates) avoids far more costly court battles in which a judge decides. Then there's the question of what peace of mind and moving on with your life are worth.

Ideally, families split the tab. "When parties share the cost, the investment in the process is usually greater," notes Debbie Reinberg, an elder mediator with ELDEResolutions in Denver.

You might have more luck than you think bringing sibs to the table. Mediators say that baby boomers are pretty comfortable"talking things out" and take to the idea better than their parents. But parents are more persuadable by benefits I just outlined, like financial savings.

To find a family mediator, ask a local geriatric care manager or lawyer. (Many mediators are themselves CGMs or attorneys, although the person you use should be an impartial third party to all involved.) Try for someone with a lot of experience working with elder concerns because they have training in dealing with situations that tend to be highly emotional; look for the moniker "elder mediator."