How Mediation Can Resolve a Family Conflict
When relationships are at stake, a neutral party can make a difference
(This story was originally published on A Place for Mom .)
For some families struggling with the many issues that come with aging, getting a neutral third party to help them navigate these issues could mean the difference between peace and war.
Learn more about some common family conflicts and read about the effects that elder mediation has on families.
A Family Conflict Over an Elderly Parent
It’s the sort of thing that can ruin a family. An elderly widowed father is no longer able to live at home alone. His daughter is willing to move him into her own home, but she wants help from time to time from her brother and his family who live nearby. Her brother believes the best place for dad is in a nursing home. Fights break out over the phone. A lifelong, tight-knit bond is broken between the siblings and their respective families.
“I wish I knew then about mediation,” the daughter, Nora, said more than two decades after the breakdown. “Maybe something could have been done.”
Nora, who is now in her 80s and asked that I not use her full name to protect her family, ended up getting what she wanted, but at the expense of her relationship with her once-beloved younger brother. Her father was able to live with her family for about a year before he died. Nora’s brother died suddenly a couple years after their father.
Nora never made amends with her brother or his family. “I have some regrets. I do,” she said. “I have lingering resentments as well.”
“When people are struggling to do what’s best for Dad or Mom, they may have the shared goal of doing what’s best, but may very much disagree on what that is,” said Crystal Thorpe, co-founder of Elder Decisions, an elder mediation firm based just outside of Boston.
Thorpe is one of the hundreds of elder mediators throughout the country available for families to hire. Just as divorce mediators specialize in divorce issues, elder mediators specialize in aging and eldercare issues. And just like divorce and other mediators, their job is to remain neutral.
“I like to think of it not that I’m not on anyone’s side, but that I’m on everyone’s side,” said Thorpe. “We’re looking out for everyone.” Everyone includes Dad and Mom as well, as long as they are able to participate in the process.
“If it’s about their life, we want to make sure we include their voice,” Thorpe said.
Reasons for Mediation
It’s been said there are almost as many reasons for mediation as there are families who could use it. Common reasons to seek out mediation include:
- Estate and trust issues
- Figuring out living arrangements
- Medical care for a parent
- Naming a power of attorney (POA)
- Problems with driving
- Roles the children should play
- Upkeep of the parent’s home
The goal of a mediator is to help all parties through a family conflict, including the elderly parent. Sometimes the goal of mediation is to express hopes and needs. Sometimes it is to put a solid plan into place. Sometimes, it’s just to open up lines of communication. But it can go deeper than this. If done correctly, relationships can be deepened and salvaged through mediation.
“People come to mediation with their truths. They believe so wholeheartedly that they are right. But it’s through the process of mediation that they can begin to hear other perspectives,” Thorpe said.
Things to Know Before You Hire a Mediator
There are a few things to consider when hiring a mediator. All participating parties must be voluntary participants and it’s most helpful if everyone can get together at the same table for discussion.
“We do find it’s helpful if families can meet face-to-face,” said Thorpe, who has flown to other states to do mediations and who has also conducted mediations through video conferencing (like Zoom) for cases where there were multiple parties scattered geographically.
Mediations typically take place in two to three-hour sessions. Some families need more than one session, while others can figure things out in one sitting.
As for fees, they can vary, said Thorpe. Private mediation can range in cost from $100-$400 per hour, or more, depending in part on location. Thorpe’s company charges $325-$350 an hour. Community non-profit programs set up by states may offer free or reduced services by volunteer mediators, but keep in mind these mediators may not be trained in elder issues.
Finding a mediator that everyone is happy with can be difficult. Some experts suggest asking around for recommendations. You can search for mediators on The Academy of Professional Family Mediators website or Mediate.com. Both sites have searchable directories. Thorpe also recommends searching online for your state’s association of mediators.
Another option is to search online to see if your state or community offers community dispute resolution centers staffed by volunteers. Some of these volunteers may be lawyers or social workers trained in mediation.
Questions to Ask a Potential Mediator
Many mediators will offer a free consultation either in person or by phone to learn about their services. Questions to ask potential mediators include:
- Asking how many mediations they’ve done and if they do it on a regular basis.
- Asking what the mediation process is like and how they might handle a certain situation.
- Finding out what sort of training they’ve received. Some mediators are lawyers, others are social workers, and still others bring different backgrounds. You do want someone trained in elder mediation.
- Giving a brief overview of your family’s issue and hear their thoughts on how mediation might help you in that situation.
What to Expect from Mediation
It’s up to each family to decide what they want to get out of mediation. Thorpe said some families request a “formal memorandum of understanding,” which outlines what everyone has agreed to, while other families prefer a less formal agreement or a meeting summary. Still others are simply happy with the improved communication that frequently results from mediation sessions. If the family prefers a written contract, these can also be produced as part of the process and often are formalized by an attorney.
For many mediators, the beauty in a successful mediation is watching family members at odds turn the corner, so to speak, and begin to listen to each other rather than just try to be heard.
“People start to see things through another’s eyes and gain a recognition and understanding … ” said Thorpe. “Often it completely opens up relationships and heals past hurts so people can move forward.”
Steve Gillard, a lawyer and mediator based in Washington state, agrees.
“I’ve been at numerous mediations where you reach this point where there’s a breakthrough,” Gillard said. “It’s almost a transformative, spiritual experience. Suddenly they see the other as a human being and there’s some empathy that comes into play. Then it’s just a matter of working out the details.”