Family members caring for a senior find themselves at odds for various reasons. Alarmingly, many of these families are filing court petitions to settle their caregiving disputes. They often have false hope that guardianship (which requires that a parent be declared incompetent and then grants decision-making authority to a legal guardian) will settle their disagreement over caring for mom or dad when, in reality, the problem is interpersonal conflict.
What is Mediation?
An effective intervention is mediation, a communication process focused on the concern causing a dispute. It is a non-adversarial and confidential process in which a neutral third party guides disputants to a mutually satisfactory resolution. It is not family counseling or therapy. Elders may be included fully or to the extent possible.
Mediators have extensive training in the issues of caring for an older adult, but otherwise have no connection to the case or situation. They listen empathetically to each caregiver's position, facilitate conversations to find common ground, and then assist the parties in finding a workable solution. Mediators do not determine who is right or wrong or hand down a final decision. Reaching a resolution is a consensual process; parties must agree in order to produce a written agreement.
The goal of mediation is to assist family members in resolving their caregiving disputes which, if left unresolved, could destroy family and caregiver support systems. In the worst case, these disputes could result in the institutionalization of an elder, financial exploitation, neglect or abuse.
How is mediation different?
Mediation differs in important ways from alternative means of dispute resolution. Arbitration employs a neutral third party to actually make the decision on how to resolve a conflict. Litigation, which is more expensive and time-consuming, involves a judge who makes the final decision. Arbitration and litigation produce "winners" and "losers," whereas mediation works towards a win-win solution. Mediation can be voluntary or court-ordered. A court-ordered mediation requires only that the parties show up for the mediation; the rest of the process is voluntary.
Who uses mediation?
Mediators often encounter families with multiple siblings, one of whom is providing most of the care to an elderly parent or relative. The other siblings may be critical, suspicious or jealous of the involvement of the primary caregiver. Family dynamics that date back many years, even to childhood, may complicate the situation. Unfortunately, the person being cared for is often aware of the disagreement over his or her care and may feel responsible for it.
In other situations, the remarriage of a parent can create difficult caregiving circumstances. If a parent has remarried, there are two 'sides' of the family involved in caregiving and decision-making. These families often disagree over who should pay for long-term care costs. Disputes over inheritances can further strain the relationship.
Many times, family members will disagree over a parent's living situation, such as whether to move mom to assisted living or keep her at home. In the worst scenario, one person acts unilaterally to move the senior. This can incite a family feud in which the appropriate decision regarding an elder's care becomes secondary to the controversy over the family member's actions.
Family caregiver mediation is a valuable tool for elders and family members to move beyond an impasse to productive decision-making that has, at its heart, the elder's wellbeing. In many cases, family caregiver mediation can eliminate the need for guardianship or other proceedings by focusing on consensus rather than conflict.