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Oh, Brother! With Parents Aging, Squabbling Siblings Turn to Elder Mediation

In 2006, when Ella Bayliss moved from her home of 45 years outside Boston into assisted living, all four daughters agreed that it made sense. Their mother, then 83, was having memory issues and needed more care. But after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and broke her ankle, the former social worker started to decline further, and the siblings were divided over the next step.

Two sisters thought she could stay where she was, while the youngest, Martha Whyte, believed Bayliss should be at a place with more resources. The fourth, in Texas, didn't see her mother enough to weigh in, and decided to defer to the others.

Because Whyte, 49, lives closest and is her mother's primary caregiver, she believed she was in the best position to determine her capabilities and needs. "The conversations with my sisters were incredibly unpleasant about who knows better," recalls Whyte. "I'd attended virtually every doctor's appointment with my mother for the last four years, but the attitude was, 'She's the baby sister, what does she know?' They were always second-guessing me if I made decisions. Yet I'm the one in the emergency room at 2 a.m. It got to the point where we weren't talking to one another."

New solutions to old problems

At an impasse, the family turned to elder mediation. In this fast-growing field, a trained, neutral conflict-resolution professional—sometimes an attorney or therapist—meets with adult siblings and, if they're alive and able, their parents, to sort out contentious or unresolved issues relating to Mom and Dad. The mediator's job is to defuse the situation and keep the group focused on their common goal: to come up with the best possible outcome for a parent they all love and to preserve family relationships. Everyone gets to talk (or vent or cry) and problem-solve to reach an agreement. In some situations, an elder law attorney, financial planner, caregiver or geriatric care manager also attends to lend his or her expertise.

"Across the country, we're seeing private mediators, community mediation programs and court-based providers expanding their elder mediation services at a rate far beyond anything we've seen before," says Robert Rhudy, an attorney, mediator and president of the nonprofit Senior Mediation and Decision-Making Inc.

It's no surprise that issues involving aging parents offer limitless opportunities for disagreements and all-out fights.

The dissension may revolve around any number of issues:

  • Money—who controls it, distrust of the adult child handling the checkbook, a sibling who has received more than his "fair share" of financial support or bears unequal caregiving costs.

  • Medical and end-of-life choices.

  • Family possessions, including inheritance, guardianship, sale of the parent's primary or vacation home.

  • Independence and safety (for example, taking away the car keys).

  • Living arrangements or caregiving—one sibling shouldering the burden or being controlling, another not pulling her weight, or someone feeling cut out of the loop.

Other issues include: multiple decision-makers and personalities, economic and geographic disparities among siblings, different expectations, complicated role reversals, ingrained ways of behaving, old "baggage" and personal commitments. As these issue play out, siblings watch a cherished parent decline or deal with loss—and a new industry is born.

Rather than going to court, where a judge calls the shots, mediation is nonbinding and confidential, decisions are made by consensus, and attendance is voluntary. It's also cheaper than litigation: $150 to $500 per hour for several hours for a private mediator's time, or a nominal fee if you work through community mediation centers. Family members often share the costs. Another option—doing nothing and letting problems fester—can carry the much heavier price tag of ruptured relationships, impacting interaction with beloved cousins, nieces, uncles and even the next generation.

Coming apart, coming together

"When Mom or Dad have been the hub, and all of a sudden no longer have that role, children don't have that glue to hold the family together," says Blair Trippe, the Bayliss mediator. "Some sibling relationships get stronger, while other brothers and sisters stop speaking. They have to work things out, and are not used to doing that. Mediation helps them develop new communicating and consensus-building skills."

While Whyte and two of her sisters met with the mediator, another sibling, Roberta Hill, was connected via conference call from Texas. (Beforehand, Trippe had spoken on the phone with each sister to get her perspective and visited Bayliss in assisted living. She was in the hospital the day of the mediation.) The result: The siblings agreed to hire a geriatric care manager to do an assessment of their mother and make recommendations.

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