WHAT IS ELDER MEDIATION?
The term “Elder Mediation” generally refers to mediation of matters relating to care or financial decisions of a vulnerable adult. When families have disagreement concerning care for a person who has diminished capacity to make decisions or to care for themselves, a specially trained mediator is needed. Like all mediation, key goals are to facilitate communication, to reduce barriers to agreement, and to empower the parties to make good decisions that reflect their shared values and ideals. The mediator must have skill, however, to manage communication among multiple parties, to incorporate insights from experts such as attorneys, guardians ad litem, and care managers, and also to include the Elder themselves in discussions to the fullest extent possible. Some common issues addressed during Elder Mediation include: (1) planning for future financial or physical care, estate planning, business succession planning, and advance care planning; (2) making decisions during a crisis; and (3) mediation to settle disputes involving probate matters.
WHAT IS THE BENEFIT OF ELDER MEDIATION?
When a family is not in agreement, a meticulously prepared care or estate plan can be destabilized by just one family member who challenges or undermines it. Mediators help everyone get on the same page, so that second guessing is less likely. The mediation process helps ensure that decisions and planning take into account all interests, is realistic, and is based on a unified family agreement. The fact that authentic agreement is reached helps restore peace within the family and reduces the likelihood of later challenge.
WHAT IS THE PROCESS OF ELDER MEDIATION?
First, the mediator will interview all parties and learn more about the issues involved. Then the mediator will convene one or more meetings and act as moderator to guide the meetings. The mediator will help everyone stay focused on the most important issues, will make sure that conversation is respectful and that everyone has an opportunity to be heard, and will assist the parties reach an agreement that everyone can live with. The confidentiality of mediation is protected by strict rules regarding confidentiality, and all agreements must be voluntary. At the conclusion of the mediation, if agreement is reached, the mediator will present a summary of the points agreed on by the family. The mediated agreement can be as simple as a checklist or as complex as a legal settlement agreement, depending on the needs of the parties.
WHO IS QUALIFIED TO ACT AS AN ELDER MEDIATOR?
At this time, mediation is not regulated as a profession, so it is important to look carefully at the skill and training of each individual mediator. While many Elder Mediators are attorneys by training, many highly skilled mediators have come into the field by way of their specialized background in gerontology, nursing, social work, or counseling. Knowledge of elder law is important, as is knowledge about common geriatric and competency issues, family dynamics and the psychology of extended families, and skill in mediation involving multiple parties and outside professionals. Look for signs that the potential mediator has expertise in (1) legal and financial issues of aging (financial planning, care planning, business succession planning, guardianship or probate administration), (2) multi-party, complex mediation (siblings, in-laws, and grandchildren all may be stakeholders and necessary parties to a mediation), and (3) legal issues related to competency and capacity (an Elder Mediator must take special precaution to ensure that the aged person, who may be a vulnerable adult, is accorded as much autonomy and decision making deference as his or her physical and mental capacity will allow). Ideally, a mediator will have completed an advanced training specifically in Elder Mediation.
As difficult as conversations about Elder issues may be, wise is the family that has them. While honesty, candor, and open conversation may be challenging, the more fully the issues are discussed, and the better the quality of conversation, the better the result will be. Yes, Elder Mediation may be time consuming, complex, and expensive. Several meetings are often required, and two mediators may need to be involved when there is a large group. Yet, consider the costs to the Elder and their family, in both human and financial terms, if agreement is not reached.
Unresolved issues involving a vulnerable adult will not go away if ignored. T hey will only get worse. Failing to reach a unified plan can result in preventable illness or accidents, lack of family support for a caregiver, financial exploitation, loss of a business or livelihood due to failure to plan for contingencies, distrust and alienation, failure to communicate, incorrect assumptions, escalating conflict, anger, and financial resources being poured into litigation. The consequences of failing to address underlying issues can cost not just money, but also relationships in the family and quality of life for the Elder.
In contrast, a family that works as a team is more likely to maintain the physical, mental, emotional, and financial health of all parties involved. It can be tempting to pretend nothing is wrong (one extreme) or to fight with each other (another extreme). In the middle, there is a middle ground called mediation. This middle way – the way which acknowledges conflict and yet has the courage to work through the issues to find authentic peace — is, by far, the best and most cost effective option for most families.
In addition to her professional training in general facilitative mediation, family mediation, and community mediation, Alexandria Skinner has trained specifically as an Elder Mediator with nationally recognized mediators Zena Zumeta and Susan Butterwick of Ann Arbor, Michigan. In addition, Skinner has studied mediation for extended family groups at the Lombard Mennonite Peace Institute in Lombard, Illinois, and she is certified as a collaborative professional with the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals (IACP). To support her commitment to helping families have better relationships and better solutions for Elders, Skinner also has been active as a volunteer with the Elder Section of the Association for Conflict Resolution since 2009 and, in that capacity, has assisted in selection of topics, preparation of, and facilitation of numerous educational programs for professional mediators on the subject of elder mediation. If you would like to discuss a potential issue involving elder mediation, either a need for mediation or an academic or professional interest, please fill out the form below or call 803-414-0185.
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