Elder Mediation: A Bridge Over Troubled Water

By Laura Melton Tucker, July 8th, 2009

June 28, 2009 – Boston Globe: “An elderly man was seriously injured after being struck by an 86-year-old woman…The accident comes just two weeks after an 89-year-old woman struck and fatally injured a 4-year-old girl…On June 2, a 93-year-old man drove his car into the entrance of a Wal-Mart, injuring six people…The next day, seven people were injured after a car driven by a 73-year-old woman jumped a curb and ran into a crowd.”

We’ve all seen these kinds of tragic headlines. Most of us know someone who, if not involved this time, could be the one at fault next time. We fail to step in because it is uncomfortable to have the talk.

Issues related to our aging American population are turning elder care into a pressing family matter. The good news is that a new path for dealing with these issues has emerged. Adult Family Mediation, based on family circle conferencing principles, provides families with a forum to talk about aging-related issues. When an elder’s faculties become diminished, the ability to drive, manage medications, attend to finances and live alone may be affected. Rather than let the situation worsen into a crisis with few choices, families are using mediation to proactively gather in a room and talk about what comes next.

Adult family mediations are a time to share information, discover options, and air feelings. When a neutral third party is present, the family dynamic shifts. Family members, who might reach an impasse in a home setting, reverting to old patterns of interaction and rivalries, bring their “better angels” to the mediation table. At the conclusion of the session, which may last an hour or two, the mediator will draw up a plan of action; a road map to guide medical staff and care providers.

Rikk Larsen, an elder mediator, describes in an NPR interview his own experience working with a family in crisis. A group of brothers and sisters, concerned about their father’s refusal to share financial information, were ready to go to court to have him declared mentally incompetent. They wanted to take over his finances themselves. Instead, a mediation led the family to a compromise. They agreed that the father’s accountant would send an assistant every two weeks to help their father pay his bills. Larsen also describes a mediation where the intense emotional pleas of the children for their father to hand over his car keys finally led the man to give them up…but not to his children. He handed them to the mediator instead.

As Bette Davis said, “Old age is no place for sissies.” Adult Family Mediation is meeting a growing need in our country for thoughtful attention to the problems of elders. The takeaway is that mediation helps elders and their families face challenging health, emotional and financial issues. Finding solutions to problems in a compassionate and dignified way gives elders peace of mind and a sense of control at a time when both are in short supply.

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