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 as where they live (independently, assisted living, skilled nursing care), who manages their decisions and finances (themselves, conservators, trustees, etc.) and dealing with government benefits (such as social security, Medicare, etc.). The issues usually center around whether the elder needs assistance, what kind of assistance, and who should participate in decision-making. Elder mediations usually involve the older person and his or her adult children – and sometimes siblings, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, friends and caregivers – in discussing decisions that may include elder law and other non-legal but essential issues.
There was a demonstration mediation and I was very pleased to see some of my experienced students (from a prior elder mediation training – see September posts) using several methods of managing an elder mediation with at least one “high-conflict” person present. While some mediators prefer to do mostly separate caucuses to resolve disputes, I strongly believe that elder mediation should be done primarily in joint mediation sessions. They involve long-term relationships, which hopefully will continue long into the future, so that they need assistance in working together rather than pulling apart.
When the emphasis is on separate sessions, it’s easy for the parties to “split” into those who intensely favor what the elder says he or she wants (usually more independence and self-determination), and those who intensely favor what they believe is in the elder’s best interest (usually more care provided and more control by others). This “splitting” dynamic is particularly present when there is a high-conflict person involved – whether it’s the elder and/or one (or more) of the adult children. The solution, of course, is to guide the family in working together to integrate all of these concerns, so that the decisions include: maximum independence given the circumstances, maximum self-determination, maximum care provided and control by others only to the extent necessary.
In elder mediation, the family can be treated as a team and by working with the family all present most of the time, the elder can feel the team working on his or her behalf, rather than being stressed by how poorly his or her family gets along. Many elders with high-conflict families express that concern when these decisions are being made: “I wish you could just get along with each other.” Joint mediation sessions provide an opportunity to manage their communication (even if it’s just temporarily) and see each other as teammates, rather than as adversaries. Of course, there may be moments when the mediator(s) meets with each person separately, but the focus should be on the team against the problem rather than allowing them to focus on being adversaries against each other.
Of course, managing high-conflict families takes a lot of training and practice. I commend the SCMA for having this afternoon institute on this growing problem and the organizers for designing a great demonstration and discussion of how mediation can help bring the family together as well as needed professionals.