The Smart Way To Handle Family Fights About Aging Parents
Family conflicts can be so emotional and painful. As parents age, many problems can crop up among adult siblings and sometimes with the elder himself. Many of these problems arise from financial issues and caregiver issues. Who is in charge of the money decisions? Should Dad stop handling the checkbook or the investments? Mom is giving away money she can’t afford to give away. Is the aging parent showing signs of cognitive impairment? How bad is it and how do you know? Is one family member doing all the hard work? People in the family disagree about what to do and the fight is on.
When adult children don’t get along, they usually just avoid each other. That works, sort of. Until the aging parent becomes difficult, infirm or has a crisis. The siblings are then forced to come together to make important decisions. Then, buried resentments, sometimes decades old, rear their ugly heads. A tough situation gets even more difficult.
Here at AgingParents.com, we are often approached by an exasperated son or daughter who is fed up with the parent, a sibling or a group of family members who are on the “wrong side” of a dispute. People are polarized. Ugly accusations fly back and forth. Someone threatens to get a lawyer, or they do get one and the situation escalates.There’s No Law Against Making Stupid Decisions Carolyn RosenblattContributor
Is there a way out of these situations that does not involve spending resources on lawyers all too happy to bill for their time to advocate for each party’s position?
There is indeed. However, the concept is somewhat new and most people never think of it.
Mediating Family Disputes
One good way out of these conflicts is through mediation of family disputes. We also call it elder mediation. Here’s a brief video that illustrates the concept.
Most of us have heard of mediation one way or another, but we don’t usually think of it as a way to resolve disputes about aging loved ones or siblings who disagree about Mom or Dad. Instead, we think of it as a way to negotiate a way out of a labor dispute, a business matter or a divorce. Mediation is growing and has application to adult families as well.
When the people involved are willing to sit down together, mediation is an excellent way to work through family conflicts, just as it is to work through conflicts in other settings. Overall, research shows us that the success rate of using mediation to fix a dispute is about 75-80%. Those are pretty good odds. A successful outcome of mediation involves an agreement, which is written down and then becomes enforceable, just as any contract is enforceable.
In our experience as mediators at AgingParents.com, we find that the agreements people reach in mediation are not necessarily about one party paying another party money. Sometimes they are about who gets to be in charge of decisions, who will share the tasks of caregiving for an aging loved one, or when the next in line person should take over as the trustee of the family trust. A recurring problem is that family members simply do not know how to talk to one another while remaining respectful, even if they disagree.
Family members resort to “silence or violence”. That is, they may clam up when they get angry and this shuts off communication. Or, they get aggressive, accusatory and end up shouting and name calling, which also shuts off communication. A mediator, who is always a trained, neutral outsider, can help the warring parties avoid silence or violence and learn how to listen to each other’s views. With help, they can reach common ground, share information and work out their differences with guidance through the process. (We’d like to see Congress using mediators!)
The Pros and Cons
Mediation is not therapy and it’s not going to instantly fix your damaged relationships. If you hate your family member, you’re not going to kiss and make up just because you went to mediation.
It costs money. You are usually paying a private mediator by the hour or a flat rate. Savvy mediators can do their work by Skype(TM) or by phone for families scattered across states. That works too, though face to face is an ideal way to do this.
But, mediation can clearly help people in dispute come to agreement on specific issues, and this can restore peace. Seeking peace by this dignified means is definitely worth it. When family fights escalate to lawsuits, no one really wins.
If your family is at war and you think it’s hopeless, please do not give up. If you can get family members to agree to try mediation, do your research to find a trained and experienced elder mediator. Private mediators are on Mediate.com and eldercaremediators.com, as well as in community mediation service organizations.