Are your parents getting older? Do you worry about your father’s driving? Is your mom losing her memory? Is it still safe for them to live alone? How do you know when it is time to get them help? Do your siblings see eye to eye with you – or do you find that you have different ideas about what should happen?
Some of the most difficult conversations we baby boomers may have with our sisters and brothers are about our aging parents. Our parents want to preserve their independence, while we want them to be safe. It’s a fine line (or perhaps continuum) between the two, and it is natural that siblings have different views about what is best for your parents.
Your siblings’ perspectives will be influenced by their personality, their status in the family, even by where they live. While our relationships with our siblings can be a source of support, they can also be an intense source of stress. One sister may feel burnt out while the other feels left out.
One brother may feel unappreciated, while perceiving the other as the favorite. One may be the primary caretaker, and may resent the others telling him how to do his job. And, of course, underlying all of this is the frightening reality that our parents – indeed, all of us – are mortal.
Emotions are often intense and can be overwhelming, making it difficult to make group decisions. How can such conflicts be resolved? One option is elder mediation — a structured conversation with a trained neutral professional. The mediator’s job is to help family members make decisions together.
The mediator will help the family define who needs to participate in the decision-making process, determine which decisions need to be made, and then to guide the conversation in so that you can problem-solve in a constructive and productive manner.
Who will participate? It is important to have decision makers at the table. Does that include all of the siblings? Usually. Their spouses? Adult grandchildren? Other caretakers? Perhaps.
Every family – every situation – is different. While the mediator is generally neutral, she may have to take special steps to accommodate the elder’s needs. For instance, if it is hard for the elder to travel, the mediation may take place in their home. If the elder has hearing difficulty, the mediator may sit next to him so the elder can read her lips. There may be times when a parent’s dementia makes it impossible for him or her to participate. Or the elder may not want to be in the room. In that case, the mediator must be mindful of the elder’s needs, and may wish to speak to the elder in a separate conversation.
The meeting itself brings family members together to discuss their concerns and their interests. The mediator’s job is to make sure each voice is heard, and to take the time to understand why one sibling may feel a certain way. She will help each sibling hear the others, and may point out patterns of communication that are either helpful or obstructive to conflict resolution. She will ask siblings for potential solutions, and to work together to brainstorm a list of possible options. And finally, the mediator may ask tough questions to do reality-testing, to ensure that a particular plan is thought out thoroughly.
The mediator will not make decisions for the family, but will help the family work together to make decisions themselves. When people have a voice, they have more investment in the outcome.
When participants understand each other in new ways and see things through each others’ eyes, they change their relationships for ever. A crisis that had been a source of conflict can therefore become an opportunity for the family to do group problem solving.
Elder mediation enables you and your family to build on your strengths to create the best possible solution for all involved.