When family members disagree about how best to help an aging loved one, issues can get so heated that the parties take the fight to court. Drawn-out, highly disputed court cases are stressful, expensive and time consuming. The strain already felt by family caregivers becomes overwhelming when they are wrapped up in litigation while simultaneously caring for their loved one.
As an attorney, I see conflicts in caregivers’ lives every day: A sibling feels they’re being kept in the dark about Dad’s health; someone suspects that the caregiver is spending Mom’s money on themselves; or the out-of-state relatives believe (sight unseen) that the caregiver is neglecting their care partner. Tensions boil over and they seek my advice about their legal options. Most people aren’t litigious or sue-happy. They want to avoid going to court more than they want to go.
On the flip side, there are those who want to win at all costs. They’re seeking out a lawyer who will “go after” whoever has made them upset. They want a “shark” or a “bulldog” and they definitely don’t want to hear that they may not have a good legal argument or how much it will cost to pursue their target. They want to do battle and want the court to be their battlefield.
Those people can get so wrapped up in the discord that they forget that at the heart of it all is a person. And regardless of advancing years or state of mental capacity, that care recipient deserves participation in their life and autonomy and independence as much as possible. Their physical or mental health decline should not be used as an opportunity for family members to air grievances or go on a power trip. But that does unfortunately happen; their loved ones forget that caregiving is not about winning, it’s about fulfilling a person’s needs. And the reality of duking it out in court is that while the legal system may decide that one party prevails, there are no winners at the end of that day.
A dispute resolution process
A developing type of legal process aims to the heart of the conflict and may best serve our aging population. Eldercaring coordination is an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) process that brings together the older adult, their legally authorized decision makers (like those named in a power of attorney or their legal guardian), and others (like family members) to resolve their arguments.