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Neutral and Non-Judgmental”: Many Families are Learning to Resolve Elder Care Conflicts Through Family Mediation

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What does a family do when mom or dad needs elder care, yet the adult kids aren’t on the same page concerning their roles and responsibilities? Many families find themselves in just such a predicament. Whether siblings live hundreds of miles apart, or are simply a thousand miles apart in terms of opinions and attitudes, trying to resolve family conflict while in the middle of providing care is a classic example of building an airplane while flying it, except that caregiving is far more emotional and potentially painful.

For that reason, we were drawn to this article from the NextAvenue website in which journalist and author Arlene Weintraub makes a powerful case for families concerned about caregiving conflict engaging the services of a family mediator. These trained professionals can provide clear-minded and objective advice to siblings with differing views, helping them avoid the emotional minefields that can arise and providing solutions than help ensure the burdens of caregiving are handled equitably and effectively.

Mediator Helps Four Far-Flung Siblings Find Caregiving Solutions

Weintraub begins her article with a story about Long Island resident Laura Bushman Schneider, who found herself in the middle of a fraught situation when her father passed away, leaving her mother alone with a developing cognitive impairment. Schneider lived fairly near her mother, but her siblings were scattered across the country.

“That made it challenging to share the responsibilities of caring for their older mother,” Weintraub writes, “and tensions rose as they argued over whether she should be moved to an assisted living facility.”

The distant siblings felt left out of the conversation, so the family decided to hire a family mediator. That was September. “By October,” says Weintraub, “they had all agreed to move their mom to assisted living, selected a facility and worked together to prepare her for the move. They each volunteered for tasks like helping their mom sort out her finances and coaxing her to give up driving.”

According to Schneider, mediation allowed them to approach a difficult situation without getting emotional, and helped them solve the problem.

Mediation Isn’t Always About Legal Disputes

Despite its legal reputation, mediation—and mediators—come in all types and specialties. Weintraub is quick to point out that “you don’t have to be squabbling over power of attorney or other legal issues to benefit from the process.” Resolving disagreements among families, especially with issues regarding elder care, is a growing area of specialization among mediators, and is “designed to lead to a peaceful solution”.

Gail Goodman of New York mediation firm Talking Alternatives, the firm that Schneider and her family used, explains, “A good mediator is truly neutral and non-judgmental,” and adds, “We’re vested in helping people avoid litigation.”

Allowing All Voices to Be Heard

The process is fairly simple and straightforward. “Mediators typically start the process by talking to each member of the family separately,” says Weintraub. “That may include the elder parent, too, provided he or she has the desire and capacity to participate. From there, all family members will meet with the mediator via video conference, during which they will be guided through a structured discussion.”

Family mediator Andrea Pezel elaborates that this process includes “rules for making it a safe space”, as well as giving every family member a chance to be heard. “It’s about identifying problems, more so than pointing blame,” Pezel says.

But ultimately, the goal is to come away with “action items”, according to Pezel. Family members should be able to walk away from mediation knowing the next steps and assigned tasks, so that no one is in the dark or out of the loop.

Bring In a Mediator When Disagreements Persist – but Before a Crisis

When is it just a squabble, and when does your family need mediation? Weintraub replies, “If you and your siblings have been grappling with elder-care issues for two years or more and haven’t come to any resolutions, mediation could be the answer.”

The key is not to wait until you’re dealing with a crisis, though Weintraub says that there are mediators who “will offer mediation on short notice to help adult children navigate medical emergencies.”

Goodman offers an example: “Say the mother has fallen and broken her hip, and she is about to be discharged from the hospital, but the family can’t decide where she should go. Mediation offers an opportunity to have that conversation right away and make a decision.”

Choosing the Right Mediator for Your Family

Mediators can have all kinds of expertise and training, including counseling, social work, and law. No matter what your unique needs are, odds are good that there’s a mediator who fits.

Because of the nature of elder-care, Weintraub suggests that you might try looking for a mediator with an understanding of estate planning, power of attorney, and other related issues. “When it comes to elder care disputes, having legal expertise on board isn’t always necessary, but it can come in handy in some situations,” Weintraub advises.

Are you looking for a mediator? Weintraub suggests asking your employer first if family mediation is one of your benefits. “You can also search for mediators online at the Academy of Professional Family Mediators or Mediate.com. If legal matters are involved, try your state’s court system. For example, New York’s court system has an online directory of professionals who offer alternative dispute resolution services.”

Even the thorniest problems can often be resolved with the objective eye of a third party. Allowing every family member to be heard and reaching for tangible solutions together can go a long, long way toward untangling impossible problems. As Weintraub herself concludes, “Mediation is empowering.”

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(originally reported at www.nextavenue.org)

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