Families at War: Why Am I The Only One Helping My Aging Parent?

Imagine this. Your aging parent took a fall. You get the long distance phone call. Mom is in the hospital. Suddenly, you and your siblings have to talk together, as Mom will need help when she returns home after rehabilitation. Who will watch over her care at home? Who will decide how to pay for her care? Who’s in charge, anyway?

These scenarios are all too common and growing more so. Whether our aging parent has planned ahead or not, the adult children have a new responsibility thrust on us. Sometimes, siblings are scattered across the country. Sometimes, even if they live in the same area, they don’t get along. It’s an uncomfortable feeling trying to make decisions with siblings we don’t trust, and maybe never did.  Family fights can turn an already stressful situation into a nightmare. But, there is something we can do about it. It’s called elder mediation.

The concept may sound odd to some. Many think of mediation as a thing to use for labor disputes or international peacemaking. But mediation can be used at home with families, too. Elder mediation is emerging as a way to address issues in families and with institutions about the care of elders and the conflicts among and with their caregivers. The issues are often about money, control, and the work of caring for aging loved ones.

Here’s how elder mediation works. First it requires an agreement among those who are having a dispute that using a neutral person outside the family is worth trying. The mediator is chosen and a date for mediation is set. The family meets, ideally in person, but sometimes by teleconference or on Skype, to discuss the areas of disagreement. With the guidance of the mediator, everyone has a chance to weigh in and air their differences. With cooperation, some agreements can be reached about what is best for Mom. The mediator puts the agreements in writing and everyone signs. Then, all involved have a solid plan to work from and a reminder of what they’ve committed to doing.

In the real world of old rivalries among siblings, long buried grudges and past hurts and misunderstandings, it can be very hard for families to come together around the needs of an aging parent. However, we are seeing that working together is possible, even if we don’t like each other all that much. The goal, of course, is to maintain the best possible quality of life for our parents as they age and become more dependent on us.

Here are 7 tips on using elder mediation if the family at war sounds like your family:

1. If you and other family members (or your parent) are not getting along and the conflict is stressing you out, consider mediation.

2. Mediation is successful, generally about 75%-80% of the time. It’s always less expensive than disputes that escalate into lawsuits or other public displays.

3. Never underestimate the value of having a neutral person outside the family help you get a handle on how to work things out. Mediators are trained to deal with difficult people and are objective.

4. Don’t be afraid of being “judged”. Mediators don’t make decisions for you, decide who’s right or wrong or tell you what to do. They help you figure your own way out of your fighting.

5. Imagine how it would feel to have some sort of peace instead of an ongoing dispute in your family. Mediation can help you find that peace, if you are willing to give it a try. Compromise is a way to peace and mediators encourage it.

6. Everyone involved needs to come to the table to see what agreements can be made. Just talking things through with guidance can do wonders to break up a family impasse.  If everyone won’t come, work with those who will.

7.  Mediators help families come together to take emotional control so they can take effective action about aging loved ones.