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

"Mediation has reinforced that in order for my mother to get what she needs, the four of us have to work together regardless of our feelings for one another," says Whyte. Hill realizes the family was at a stalemate, but regrets that they needed "an outsider to come in and open up family issues that are no one else's business."

A growing national trend

As the concept of elder mediation gains more exposure, that attitude is likely to change. Earlier this month, at its national conference, the Association for Conflict Resolution offered six elder mediation workshops, while the American Bar Association and the National Academy of Elder Lawyers also have held seminars on the subject. "In five years, elder mediation will be known in the same way as divorce mediation is today," predicts Arline Kardasis, cofounder of Elder Decisions in Norwood, Mass., which will train 120 elder mediators this year. "Divorce mediation has become almost the norm in some states."

Says Janet E. Mitchell, an Indiana mediator and cofounder of Eldercaremediators.com: "When I tell people what I do, they always say, 'I could use your service or know someone who can.' " Two reasons: Age 85-plus is the largest-growing demographic group in the United States, and 19 million to 22 million children act as family caregivers.

"Most of our parents did not go through this caregiving and life passage the way we are, because they didn't live as long. Therefore, there's no model," says Francine Russo, author of They're Your Parents, Too! How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents' Aging Without Driving Each Other Crazy. "For the first time in history, adult siblings and their parents have to reengage intensively and long-term even though they have not lived in the same household for 30 or 40 years."

You'd never know it, though. "A lot of times, all that old stuff from eighth grade is still there," says Eileen Schaeffer, an elder law attorney and director of the elder mediation program at Montgomery Conflict Mediation Center in Eagleville, Pa. "Undercurrents of family conflicts are driving some of the elder conflict even more than the immediate reason that they come to mediation." That "old stuff" can interfere with sound decision-making.

Parental wishes

Mom and Dad are typically less interested in what those decisions are than that their kids get along, maintain elder care experts. Out of fear of triggering sibling strife or displeasure from their children, they may not level with family members. Mediators like to visit parents to hear what they're thinking and, while they're at it, make sure the children aren't making decisions for them when they're perfectly capable.

Parents vital enough to take part may decide not to attend mediation, or to speak at the beginning of the meeting, then leave. (Some siblings also choose not to participate.) "It's incredibly debilitating for the parent to see sibling conflict and realize that once they're gone, their children may have nothing to do with one another," says Forrest Mosten, a Los Angeles mediator and attorney.

The blessings of a neutral party

Carol Rice, 57, believes a skilled elder mediator might have prevented the rift in her family. After her father died, Rice's mother, now 92, was afraid to be alone. So Rice and her two sisters suggested that each of the six adult children take turns hosting Mom for two nights. Their mother was onboard, but three of the siblings refused and have bowed out of caregiving, says Rice. "We can't understand why they are so detached from my mother, but they are," says Rice. "Before this happened, we took trips together and hung out at one another's house. But everything is different now."

That wrenching experience prompted Rice, cofounder of the Conflict Resolution Academy in Atlanta, to start offering elder mediation and to train professionals in this specialty. Yet, even if she had had the knowledge, "it doesn't matter how trained you are," believes Rice. "When you're the person in the situation, you lose perspective. You need someone who can help the family move forward, maintain the dignity of the parent, and keep relationships you've valued all your life."

As parents live longer, sibling relationships are likely to get tested over and over. "My mother is in good health and this situation could go on for a long time," says Rice. "I fully expect her to live to be 100. I might not make it, but she will!"

Tips for finding an elder mediator

There is no national credentialing or formal licensing for elder mediators, and states have different requirements. Choose a mediator familiar with elder issues. For referrals, try these sources:

  • Enter "elder mediation" in an Internet search engine plus city or state for local or state-specific mediation associations.

Sally Abrahms writes on aging and boomers for national magazines, newspapers, websites and companies.

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