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By Jane Iddings

Elder Mediation:
How It Helps Elders and Adult Children Have Difficult But Valuable Conversations

When it’s time to help an elder in a family make important decisions, the responsibility often falls to the adult children. Family history may make it challenging for adult children to have what may be difficult but valuable conversations with each other and with their elder. Childhood wounds and a family history of dysfunctional behaviors and poor communications may make it stressful if not impossible to talk with each other.

Who Can Help?

An elder mediator: a neutral third party, a professional with communication and conflict resolution skills, who can create a safe, respectful environment for the family discussion. The elder mediator can help the family to clarify the issues at hand, set an agenda for discussion, focus the discussion, and create the space for the family to make necessary decisions. The elder mediator constantly monitors the process for communication problems and power imbalances and guides the family through difficult negotiations.

Family members must “buy into” the process as mediation is voluntary. It is an out-of-court opportunity for families to economically and quickly resolve problems and make decisions. The family members are the only decision makers; the mediator does not take sides or make decisions.

An elder mediator can provide essential help to enable the adult children to have this difficult but valuable conversation.

1. What are some of the important decisions adult children can help elders make?

Some rise to the level of legal disputes, but most are non-legal family matters:
  • Can the elder take care of themself in their home? Does they need assistance? If so, what kind? Who will do it? What money is needed and who will provide it?
  • Does the elder need to move to a care facility? Where? Who will pay for it?
  • How will the elder’s home be sold? How will the extra belongings be disposed of?
  • What legal documents must the elder have such as wills, trusts, and health directives? Who will provide these? Who will pay for them?

2. What problems do adult children have in working together?

  • Childhood wounds may still be festering.
  • There may be significant disparities in finances, time, physical ability, responsibilities.
  • There may be differences in expectations about “who should do what” based on gender, age, proximity to elder, expertise, and history.

3. How can an elder mediator help the adult children have what may be a difficult but valuable conversation with each other and with the family elder?

  • An elder mediator is trained to work with family systems. He or she is cognizant of childhood wounds carried into adulthood and unproductive communication patterns that must be addressed.
  • An elder mediator is trained in communication skills to carefully listen to the elder and the adult children to help them better understand themselves and each other.
  • An elder mediator is trained to help the elder and adult children create a safe environment in which to explore options, and to help foster discussions and find agreement.

Mediation Case:

As an elder mediator, I worked with a family composed of Elder Father, who was in the early stages of dementia, two adult brothers, and the brothers’ spouses. The family lived on Elder Father’s property which was in a trust. Problems had arisen about setting physical boundaries on the property, responsibility for work and finances, care for Elder Father, and even a barking dog. Elder Father’s trust attorney was overwhelmed by the inability of the brothers to communicate and by the hostilities that had developed while living together (no doubt compounding childhood issues). His solution was to refer them to mediation.

As their mediator, I carefully listened to the parties, including Elder Father who just wanted “peace in the family.” As we talked, the parties began to open up and were willing to discuss with each other possible solutions.

In the end the brothers were freely talking with each other. Agreements were made, including one for the brothers to attend joint therapy to heal some childhood wounds and to improve communications. Other agreements covered physical boundaries on the property, how to account for Elder Father’s finances, and responsibilities for building a fence and a dog cage. Even the barking dog was handled.

Is Mediation for Everyone?

No, it isn’t for everyone. But it is for many people who have an intention to work together to solve their problems and to do so in a civil, respectful manner -- even when they don’t feel like it.

Jane Iddings, J.D., M.S.W. Jane Iddings, J.D., M.S.W., Elder and Divorce Mediator and Family Law Attorney, Petaluma, CA.

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