Whether you are an elder, or the adult child of an elderly person, mediation can help with family stress.
Aging brings with it many sources of worry, stress, and adjustment. In preparing for the types of transitions that come with age, Elders must make arrangements for (and plan for financially as well) increased levels of care in the event of physical or mental incapacity. Elders must also decide upon and formalize estate plans, often balancing conflicting needs and interests. This process requires not only the older adult but also their adult children and other loved ones to engage in thought, conversations, and decisions that may not always come naturally or easily.
Family relationships are impacted by these changes, as well. No matter how healthy or how long an Elder is able to stay independent, the fact is that physical circumstances will eventually require some increased level of care and transition of important responsibilities. When change happens, whether gradual or sudden, adult children are often called in to be caregivers or help make medical decisions.
Elders themselves are also faced with emotional issues and adjustments. These transitions are difficult. Elder mediators are sensitive to the stresses and challenges posed by new roles. Caregiver burnout, questions about who will assume what responsibilities, concerns about safety and costs of care, inheritance questions — conversations about these health, financial, and care giving concerns are difficult ones. The answers also depend on very personal values, which the mediator will respect
The challenges of aging, and of caring for an aging parent, will require various family members to draw on resources, sometimes on sheer inner strength, that they didn’t even realize they had. The adult offspring must balance competing demands between their own spouses, careers, parents, and children. The grown children may not always agree with either their parent or among themselves about how to address challenges. Indeed, in some families adult children can barely stand to be in the same room. Yet, they must get together and cooperate for the sake of their loved ones. Ideally, all family members will be a part of the decision making process and will forge an agreement that actually unifies them and enables them to achieve their objective. All in all, planning for old age and then navigating the path can be a challenging and stressful time for families. Elder Mediation creates a safe space for dialogue about these weighty matters that accompany changing circumstances in life. It helps families work together to achieve agreements that enable them to face these issues as a united team.
What Specific Types of Issues? Each family’s needs are different. Topics involved in Elder Mediation may include:
- Estate Planning,
- Trust Arrangements,
- Housing & Living Arrangements,
- Personal Care,
- Health Care Planning,
- Driving and Safety,
- Meals and Housecleaning
- Financial Management,
- Paying Bills
- Consumer Protection Issues,
- Guardianship & Conservatorship Issues,
- Decisions about Inheritance,
- End of Life Decisions, and
- Settlement of Estates when heirs disagree.
When Should I Call an Elder Mediator? Ideally, a family will call in a mediator to facilitate discussion before a crisis or serious disagreement happens. Proactive planning gives families time to consult appropriate experts and decide on thoughtful, well-considered strategies, while their options are still plentiful. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure: the mediator may simply guide discussion, point out issues that need to be considered, be present to defuse tension or referee arguments (if they happen), and refer the family to appropriate community resources (for instance, estate planning lawyers, geriatric medical specialists, and elder care managers).
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The best type of crisis is one that never happens. Good planning can save ensure continuity of care, save family assets, and promote family unity. On the other hand, a mediator is often not called in until after there indeed has been some crisis: a fall, an illness, a guardianship hearing, a major bill unpaid, or siblings barely on speaking terms. These things bring families face to face with the fact that something must change.
When faced with the fact that hard choices can no longer be avoided, the Elder and different members of the family may individually come up with different answers to the question, “What’s to be done?” Big decisions must be made on short time frames and with limited information. The mediator can be a moderating influence when families are in crisis, helping them navigate confusing choices. Elder mediators do not make decisions for families, but they can point families to resources and facilitate the process of decision making. Mediators can help families have fruitful family meetings that examine realistic options. In this way, they help families manage conflict better, preserve important relationships, and make better decisions for the long term.
What Is Distinctive About the Role of the Mediator? The mediator is not an advocate for one position or another, as an attorney would be. The mediator is not a therapist and does not engage in family counseling. Neither does the mediator provide hands-on care or assessment, as a care manager or social worker would do. Rather, a mediator is an expert in the facilitation of positive communication and fruitful negotiation. If a family can achieve this by themselves, they don’t need a mediator. Most families, however, can benefit greatly from the presence of a mediator.
A mediator is a neutral intermediary who manages family meetings by setting ground rules, facilitating discussion, and refereeing the conversation so that difficult topics can be discussed in a neutral and safe environment. A good mediator will coach the family in positive communication, conflict resolution, and will point families to outside resources as needed. This positive, neutral setting fostered by the mediator, coupled with access to good quality information, enables families to overcome the emotional hurdles that prevent healthy communication. Thus empowered, families can engage in those difficult conversations and then make the best possible decisions. It might be helpful to think of the mediator as a meeting facilitator — a coach or referee — who conducts a family meeting in a fair, impartial, and structured way that is designed to create a safe space in which everyone in the family can be heard on an important, developing family transition.
What Are Some of the Advantages of Elder Mediation? Conflict addressed through mediated family meetings can be discussed 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. The mediator will ensure that everyone has an opportunity to be heard and to have their concerns addressed. In this way, Elder Mediation soothes tensions and avoids the feeling (or actuality) of exclusion of important 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. Indeed, securing adequate assistance from a unified family may actually prevent abusive or neglectful behavior by overwhelmed caregivers.
Elder mediators also help families become unified even when relationships are rocky. 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 encounter feelings from their past that bubble up and make clear thinking difficult. Siblings who have lived apart for many years may have developed differences in their own geographic, economic and immediate family structures. Unresolved tensions that may have simmered below the surface can resurface and make family conversations very difficult. For instance, one sibling who is doing most of the physical care giving may feel he is being taken advantage of by others who are less involved. A high level business manager may resent it when his siblings act as as if he is still the baby who needs to be told what to do. As a result of any kind of issues in this vein, adult siblings 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. A skilled Elder Mediator is aware of these challenges and strives to help level the playing field so that all parties can deal with each other as adults.
Some discord is to be expected. Because mediation seeks to help the parties find an authentic peace rather than a faked one, some of these issues may need to be discussed in order to bring about some resolution. When this is the case, the mediator will coach parties in the use of positive, nonthreatening, and nonjudgmental communication techniques. The mediator is not a counselor, but can act somewhat like a referee, helping the parties decide on ground rules and then stay within those boundaries so that they can focus on the real issues and find authentic agreement on key points. In conclusion, Elder Mediators possess specialized knowledge in areas related to family dynamics, emotional issues, and planning needs; they have excellent communication and meeting facilitation skills, and they use this knowledge and skill to help families that are struggling with issues related to estates, financial planning, physical care, mental and emotional needs, and community resources. Mediators facilitate these family discussions — about matters relating to safety, finances and capabilities — while acknowledging, respecting, and including all parties to the extent to which they are able to participate. Regardless of the context or timing, Elder Mediation seeks to strengthen families by helping them come to agreement and face challenges of aging, in a unified, cohesive manner. Ideally, Elder Mediation will reinforce bonds of trust, heal relationships, and restore family unity. At a minimum, Elder Mediation offers the opportunity to help families come up with agreements that everyone can live with, even if no solution seems 100% perfect.