Elder Mediation: The New Crisis Counseling (Part 1)

By Julie Davis

As baby boomers approach their own retirement age, very few thought they would become caregivers to parents well into their 80s and 90s. Their parents probably never wanted this for them to either; they’d much rather remain independent. Disputes can arise from these situations.

As baby boomers approach their own retirement age, very few thought they would become caregivers to parents well into their 80s and 90s. Their parents probably never wanted this for them to either; they'd much rather remain independent. Disputes can arise from these situations.

One child may take care of parents and the other siblings may disagree with the way in which that care is provided. Or the parent may be very sensitive to any action that restricts their independence, like when an adult child wants to take away Dad's car keys because he scraped the fender on the neighbor's car—again.

Emotions can flare and the problem can be transformed into more intractable issues of pride and dignity. Old sibling rivalries may be rekindled and long-buried resentments may resurface. Before they start doing things they may later regret, such as going to court, family members can try a relatively new option: getting assistance from an elder mediator.

Mediation: A Time Tested Approach

Mediation is an effective method that can help families reduce conflicts and incendiary interactions. It often prevents problems from escalating out of control, which they very well can.

Consider that father who was adamant about keeping the keys to his car. When his children told him they were taking the keys, he told them the first one who did it would be removed from his will. Everyone including the father knew his driving was no longer safe, but there was absolutely no way he was going to allow his children to dictate to him. The elder thought it a blow to his dignity if he surrendered the car keys to a child, even a grown one.

The family called in an elder mediator to facilitate the mediation process. The outcome of the session was a win-win situation for everyone. The father agreed to give up the car keys (which was what the children wanted); however, he did not hand the keys to his children (which was his stand) but to a third party mediator.

Issues In Family Mediation

There are many issues that can cause members of a family to take opposing positions, but there are common flash points that usually spark family disputes.

"Concerns about car keys and related issues of driving and transportation, contested guardianships and disagreements about how to care for parents are the most common conflict points in my experience," says Janet Mitchell, an attorney-mediator and director of Eldercare Mediators in Indiana.

Many issues lend themselves to mediation, according to Mitchell who has mediated over 800 cases since 1986. However, it is the family that makes the final decision on what topics they will bring to mediation.

Aside from the three areas of possible conflict mentioned above, mediation may be necessary on issues such as:

  • Caregiving and living arrangements for aging parents if they remain in their home
  • Payment of bills and the handling of finances
  • Enhancement of relationships among parents, siblings, grandchildren, and other family members, including settling family fights
  • Family business concerns
  • Powers of attorney and guardianship decisions
  • Inheritance and asset/property distribution decisions including issues on wills, trusts and estates
  • Preparations for end-of-life arrangements and advanced dispositions

The Aim Of Mediation

The basic concept in mediation is that people can work things out among themselves and resolve their differences more quickly with the help of a mediator—someone who is neutral and can facilitate communication among all parties involved.

Mediators provide expertise in processes that can help the family reach agreements on the issues to be resolved. They steer the group through the process, but make sure the decisions are made by the group alone.

The mediation approach emphasizes confidentiality (especially on the mediator's part), voluntary participation, impartiality, realism, problem-solving instead of putting blame on others and shared communication among participants.

"A mediator who uses a directive method of mediating will have problems," says Mitchell. "Transformative and facilitative methods work better in elder mediation."

Mitchell also stresses the need for a mediator to have thorough knowledge about aging and family dynamics in order to be effective.

Evaluating A Credentialed Mediator

There is no national credentialing system for elder mediators. State governments handle the requirements for mediator education, training and credentialing, but not all states license or certify mediators.

Mediation training usually covers 40 hours of basic training and 20 hours of advanced training. There are mediation organizations that require 20 hours of continuing training every two years of its members.

But the most important thing to look for is experience in settling disputes: the more disputes handled, the better. Some organizations require their mediators to have a minimum of 250 hours of face-to-face family mediation and to have handled at least 25 different cases.

When you are interviewing an mediator, ask about the following information:

  • Education and training
  • Certification (but first check if your state certifies or licenses mediators)
  • Mediation experience involving cases similar to yours
  • Affiliations with professional mediation groups and organizations
  • Fees (charges can range from $150 to $500 per hour)
  • Method mediation face-to-face is better than shuttle mediation, and transformative/facilitative is better than directive mediation

Finding A Qualified Mediator Near You

The following sites can help you locate mediation centers and/or mediation professionals in your state.

  • National Association for Community Mediation (NAFCM):
  • NAFCM has local centers nationwide staffed by more than 22,000 volunteer mediators. Check their site to search for a center near you.
  • Association for Conflict Resolution (ACR):
  • National Council on Family Relations (NCFR):
  • The Center for Social Gerontology:
  • American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT):
  • There are also state organizations of professional mediators.
    Read part 2 of the series

- Written By

Julie Davis

Julie Davis is a food, health and wellness writer working within all print and digital formats. She has written over 50 books for readers of all ages, from best-selling women's interest titles in the areas of beauty, fitness and lifestyle to children's picture books. She currently writes for WebMD, the Cleveland Clinic Arthritis Adviser, the Fresh-Pressed Olive Oil Club, Bottom Line Personal and Bottom Line Health. Her past work includes features for Walgreens “The Thread” blog, Everyday Health, Livestrong, Healthgrades and HealthDay where she also conceptualized and scripted a 1,000-video lifestyle series.