Elder Mediation – A Growing Field for Family Mediators

© 2011 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

Recently, I participated in a panel of speakers in Los Angeles at an Elder Mediation Institute for the Southern California Mediation Association (SCMA). Elder law is a rapidly growing area of expertise and need.It focuses on the needs of older people while they are still alive, such aswhere they live (independently, assisted living, skilled nursing care), whomanages their decisions and finances (themselves, conservators, trustees, etc.)and dealing with government benefits (such as social security, Medicare, etc.). The issues usually center around whetherthe elder needs assistance, what kind of assistance, and who should participatein decision-making. Elder mediations usually involve the older person and hisor her adult children – and sometimes siblings, grandchildren, nieces, nephews,friends and caregivers – in discussing decisions that may include elder law andother non-legal but essential issues.

There was a demonstration mediation and I was very pleasedto see some of my experienced students (from a prior elder mediation training –see September posts) using several methods of managing an elder mediation withat least one “high-conflict” person present. While some mediators prefer to domostly separate caucuses to resolve disputes, I strongly believe that eldermediation should be done primarily in joint mediation sessions. They involvelong-term relationships, which hopefully will continue long into the future, sothat they need assistance in working together rather than pulling apart.

When the emphasis is on separate sessions, it’s easy for theparties to “split” into those who intensely favor what the elder says he or shewants (usually more independence and self-determination), and those whointensely favor what they believe is in the elder’s best interest (usually morecare provided and more control by others). This “splitting” dynamic isparticularly present when there is a high-conflict person involved – whetherit’s the elder and/or one (or more) of the adult children. The solution, ofcourse, is to guide the family in working together to integrate all of theseconcerns, so that the decisions include: maximum independence given thecircumstances, maximum self-determination, maximum care provided and control byothers only to the extent necessary.

In elder mediation, the family can be treated as a team andby working with the family all present most of the time, the elder can feel theteam working on his or her behalf, rather than being stressed by how poorly hisor her family gets along. Many elders with high-conflict families express thatconcern when these decisions are being made: “I wish you could just get alongwith each other.” Joint mediation sessions provide an opportunity to managetheir communication (even if it’s just temporarily) and see each other asteammates, rather than as adversaries. Of course, there may be moments when themediator(s) meets with each person separately, but the focus should be on theteam against the problem rather than allowing them to focus on beingadversaries against each other.

Of course, managing high-conflict families takes a lot oftraining and practice. I commend the SCMA for having this afternoon instituteon this growing problem and the organizers for designing a great demonstrationand discussion of how mediation can help bring the family together as well asneeded professionals.

Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.

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