When to Call an Elder Mediator

Several months ago, after wrestling with a painful family problem — whether an older parent should continue driving — I mentioned to several friends that an elder mediator might have helped. Invariably, I was met with puzzled looks: No one knew what I was talking about.

Let me explain — and tell you why these individuals could be very helpful in the years ahead.

A small but growing number of mediators (people who help resolve disputes, typically outside a courtroom) now specialize in elder affairs. They help families work through concerns — and fights — involving caregiving, inheritance, living arrangements, estate planning and related issues. The idea has been around for several years. The Association for Conflict Resolution, a trade organization for mediators, added an elder-decision-making group in 2009. Demographics, of course, explain the development: The 85-plus age group is the fastest-growing segment of the population. Still, elder mediators say their work remains a mystery to most. “People make the assumption, ‘If I have a problem, I need an attorney,'” says Barbara Sunderland Manousso, founder of a mediation network based in Houston.

First, a few basics. Mediators don’t solve problems; rather, in the case of elder mediation, they pave the way for family members to solve problems together. Facilitate is the word you hear most often. Yes, mediation costs money, but often less than litigation (more on this in a moment). Talks can be confidential. And success usually depends on a seemingly simple, yet frequently difficult, task: hearing out and weighing others’ viewpoints.

Indeed, adult children may find themselves united on a particular issue, only to face an unyielding parent. But often the parent simply wants to be heard. “There’s a tendency to ignore — or not even include — the elder” in talks, says Dana Curtis, founder of Elder Mediation Group in Sausalito, Calif. The mediation process, ideally, gives everyone an equal voice.

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