One or both parents requiring care can create serious stresses and conflicts within families. Sometimes disagreements and misunderstandings over elder care or inheritance issues can lead families to break apart, affecting descendants for generations. To avoid this, elder mediation is available to resolve family disputes that otherwise may go unaddressed or lead to costly and traumatic litigation. A successful resolution can preserve family ties to the benefit of the entire family tree.
Situations where elder mediation can be the best route to keeping families together can include the following:
- Mom or Dad is beginning to need help and family members (as well as Mom or Dad) can’t decide on the best living arrangement: stay at home with help, move in with one of the children, move to assisted living, or move to an apartment.
- One child decides to leave work to move in and take care of Mom. Should she be paid for doing so and, if so, how much?
- Dad moves in with daughter and son-in-law, who need to build an addition onto their house to accommodate him. Should Dad pay for this? If he doesn’t live there long, should other siblings be compensated?
- Daughter is taking care of Mom and Dad, driving them to appointments, visiting them daily, helping them pay their bills. She resents the fact that her brother in California isn’t helping out and she doesn’t share any information with him. The brother feels both guilt and relief that his sister is taking care of their parents, but he’s also questioning some of the decisions she makes and isn’t convinced that his sister isn’t siphoning off some of their parents’ funds.
- Through all of such situations, Mom or Dad is telling each child more or less what he or she wants to hear in order to avoid arguments, but creating trouble between the children.
- Mom in her estate plan wants to give her divorced daughter more than her highly successful son, but is afraid that the son will feel hurt and unloved.
- The family has a vacation home that the parents would like to have stay in the family, but some of their children use it more than others. How can those who don’t use the house be compensated? Should there be a buy-out mechanism? How will operating expenses be funded?
- After the parents pass away, family members are fighting over personal belongings of little monetary value but of great sentimental importance.
- After Mom dies, Dad starts dating a younger woman and children fear that their inheritance will go to this new interloper along with the loss of their connection to their dad.
Some families can work out these issues on their own, but many cannot, and the disagreements or hurts either fester or break out into open conflict and, occasionally, litigation. Resolution through mediation can bring much better results.
The mediator doesn’t make any decisions and doesn’t take sides. Instead, the mediator listens to the issues, keeps the family focused on the goals, encourages consideration of all the options, and helps clear up misunderstandings and address hurt feelings. Through this process, the family can come up with answers to problems or ways of solving conflicts. The idea is not to have a winner or loser, but to have a solution everyone is happy with. At the end of the mediation, a settlement agreement may be drawn up to memorialize the parties’ understanding. Because it is not a legal proceeding, the agreement is not binding, but the idea is to create an agreement that everyone will be happy to follow.
Mediators report that people often get stuck with their positions — that Mom should move to assisted living, that the vacation house should be sold, that they should get the family silver because their sister already got the china. The mediators may try to get people to move away from these fixed positions by asking them to start by stating their interests. Are they concerned about Mom’s safety? About saving money? About everyone getting exactly the same inheritance from Mom and Dad? About their own financial security?
When family members state their interests they often find that there’s more common ground than appeared at first. Also, by giving every family member the opportunity to express themselves without as much fear of the reaction, they can also hear one another better.
The mediation process is voluntary and is often undercut by the unwillingness of one or more family members to participate. It takes time, costs money and there’s no guarantee of success. But skilled mediators can often bring families back together who otherwise would break apart forever. This can be well worth the time and expense and may be much cheaper and more pleasant than the alternative.