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Savvy Senior: Eldercare Mediation Can Help Families Navigate Thorny Caregiving Issues

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Frequently here at the Blog, we find ourselves turning to a familiar source for updated information about retirement-related issues – the Savvy Senior website put together each week by Jim Miller. Besides his interest in all things “senior-related,” Miller is also a columnist for The Oklahoman in Oklahoma City.

This week we encountered one of Miller’s columns that piqued our interest. As he often does, Miller was responding to a question sent in by a reader, this time from someone whose 86-year-old father had been diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease. In the column published in The Oklahoman, the distraught reader was asking Miller for help. “Are there any services that you recommend that can help families resolve elder parent caregiving conflicts?” the reader asked. On top of the father’s mental decline, this reader and two siblings were in perpetual conflict over the handling of dad’s care and finances.

Miller’s suggestion could be one that more families should explore: what he refers to as eldercare mediation. We’ll explain what Miller means and also offer some perspective and resources at the end of the piece.

In Family Caregiving, Conflict is Not Unusual

In his reply, Miller begins on an empathetic note. “It’s not unusual when adult children disagree with one another regarding the care of an elder parent,” he writes. “If you and your siblings are willing, a good possible solution is to hire an eldercare mediator who can help you work through your disagreements peacefully.”

Miller doesn’t offer much basic explanation of what mediators do, so we decided to dig a bit, specifically in the category of family mediation. This recent Forbes article defined mediation as “a method of alternative dispute resolution” designed to serve as an alternative to litigation. The goal of the trained mediator, says Forbes, is “to guide a discussion between the parties” and to help them exchange relevant information. By facilitating better communication, the mediator guides the parties toward common ground.

One great advantage of using a mediator: he or she is seen as an objective third party, not beholden to one “side” or the other. The presence of a mediator can help defuse conflict when emotions are running high – as is often the case where care of a parent is involved.

Eldercare Mediation is Relatively New

“While mediators have been used for years to help divorcing couples sort out legal and financial disagreements and avoid court battles,” Miller explains, “eldercare mediation is a relatively new and specialized service designed to help families resolve disputes that are related to aging parents or other elderly relatives.” Considering the fact that the senior population in the U.S. is the fastest growing segment among all Americans, it’s a bit surprising that eldercare mediation hasn’t been around longer.

“Family disagreements over an ill or elderly parent’s caregiving needs, medical care, living arrangements, driving issues, legal and financial decisions are just some of the many issues that an elder care mediator can help with,” says Miller. But, he adds, the focus is practical, not psychological. “Don’t confuse this with family or group therapy,” he states. “Mediation is only about decision-making, not feelings and emotions.”

Neutral Third-Party Eases Family Conflict

As we noted above, the mediator becomes the go- between when conflict arises. “The job of an elder mediator,” says Miller, “is to step in as a neutral third party to help ease family tensions, listen to everyone’s concerns, hash out disagreements and misunderstandings, and help your family make decisions that are acceptable to everyone.”

A qualified mediator can also serve as a family referral source. “Good mediators also can assist your family in identifying experts such as estate-planners, geriatric care managers, or health care or financial professionals who can supply important information for family decision making,” says Miller. However, we would add an important caution: make certain the mediator is acting in an unbiased manner, and not steering your family toward professionals with whom the mediator has any sort of inappropriate connection.

Confidentiality, Commitment, Cost

Since the mediator will be dealing with highly personal information, discretion is paramount, says Miller. “Your family also needs to know that the mediation process is completely confidential,” he emphasizes. As for the time commitment, it can be open ended, taking “anywhere from a few hours to several meetings depending on the complexity of your issues.”

These days, technology makes the mediation process simpler even if participants are far-flung. “If some family members live far away, a conference or video call can be used to bring everyone together,” Miller points out.

What about cost? Miller suggests that most mediators bill for their services on an hourly basis. “If you’re interested in hiring a private eldercare mediator, you can expect to pay anywhere from $100 to more than $500 per hour depending on where you live and who you choose,” he writes. “Or, if available in your area, you may be able to get help through a community-based nonprofit program that offers free or low-cost services by volunteer mediators.”

Finding a Mediator: National and Local Resources

If a family wants to locate an eldercare mediator in their area, Miller recommends asking for referrals from health professionals or hospital social workers. He also offers links to The Academy of Professional Family Mediators website (apfmnet.org) or Mediate.com. Both sites have searchable directories.

There’s also a directory of free or low-cost community-based mediation programs at the National Association for Community Mediation website (nafcm.org).

Again, we did a little sleuthing on our own. Here in the Seattle area where AgingOptions and Life Point Law are headquartered, King County offers The Dispute Resolution Center which includes eldercare mediation among its family services. The Volunteers of America in Western Washington website does the same. We suspect many larger metro areas have similar services.

No Professional Accreditation or Certification

Unfortunately, Miller says, it’s tough to identify qualified mediators in this field because no professional standards or licensing exists.  “There is currently no universally accepted credential or professional standard for eldercare mediators,” Miller warns, “so make sure the person you choose has extensive experience with elder issues that are similar to what your family is dealing with.”

Naturally this is one area where a careful reference check is an absolute must. “Most eldercare mediators are attorneys, social workers, counselors or other professionals who are trained in mediation and conflict resolution,” Miller adds.

Family Meeting Can Be a Positive First Step

In his many years of law practice, Rajiv Nagaich has experienced and helped address a wide range of difficult family issues. “Emotions within families often run high,” he says. “Lots of family dynamics come into play. That’s why an objective third party with no axe to grind or turf to protect can often help families arrive at a mutually-acceptable solution, whatever the issue.”

For Rajiv, a family meeting is often a good first step. “A family meeting is an excellent way to avoid the need for mediation,” he observes. “Family fights happen for many reasons, often because of differences in perspectives and expectations. By getting all the players together on neutral ground for a professionally-facilitated family meeting, most of these issues can get solved and the risk of the family requiring mediation – or worse, taking each other to court – is greatly reduced.” 

Of course, your friends at AgingOptions and Life Point Law stand ready to assist you in determining your family’s need for a family meeting or for eldercare mediation. Please contact us and let us help you on your journey toward conflict resolution.

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(originally reported at www.oklahoman.com)

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