When an aged parent needs long-term care or nears the end of life, adult siblings often argue about how to handle a loved one's care. Now, a new profession is emerging to help tamp down the tempers: the elder care mediator.
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Increasingly, these peacemakers are called in to referee complex, emotionally charged disputes. Where should the parent live? Is it time to take away the car keys? How much does each family member contribute if mom is short of funds? Who gets to make decisions about medical and end-of-life care? When successful, the mediator's work can help avoid a divisive, costly court fight and, just as important, keep the family intact.
"Forty percent of caretakers have a major conflict with siblings," says Janet Mitchell, a lawyer and psychologist who co-founded the National Eldercare Mediator Network. It had 30 members when it formed in 2004; now it has 110.
"We are not advisers," says Blair Trippe, a partner with mediator firm Elder Decisions. "We investigate fears, needs, concepts of fairness and figure out where there are commonalities. We help develop solutions and marshal together a team of professionals if necessary. Sometimes, a family only needs to talk."
The services typically cost $100 to $500 an hour, though low-cost, sliding scales or free services are available through community mediation programs.
Keep these facts in mind if you're considering hiring an elder care mediator.
1. The profession is loosely regulated. It's likely that at some point there will be common regulations and professional standards for elder care mediators. But for now there aren't. Some mediators have advanced degrees in law, social work, psychology and counseling. Others have long experience in one or more of these fields.
"Essentially, anyone can label themselves as an elder care mediator and sell their services," says Robyn Golden, director of adult programs at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
People who join the National Eldercare Mediator Network are required to have completed a 40-hour mediation course and to have mediated at least five disputes.
2. You need to search diligently. Try to get a referral from a loved one or trusted adviser. If you can't, be sure to do a careful search — for one thing, the person you choose is going to see a lot of your family's dirty linen.
Interview at least three candidates and get references. Barbara Kate Repa, a mediator and senior editor with Caring.com, suggests some questions to ask: "What training and experience have you had in mediation? How much experience do you have in mediating disputes similar to mine? What are your goals in mediation? How much do your services cost — what's included and what's not?"
You'll want to know, too, if the candidate is a member of the state's professional mediator organization and whether the person trains or teaches others, adds Carolyn Rodis, a mediator with Rodis & Henick.
3. Take your time. "It can be tempting to jump right in and hire someone, especially if a situation is reaching critical mass, but failing to check references or do your due diligence could lead to more problems down the road," says Marion Somers, author of Elder Care Made Easier: Ten Steps to Help You Care for An Aging Loved One.
4. Consider the parent's interests too. Look for a mediator who will advocate for the elder's interests, as well as for family harmony. "I worry about mediators who think that the children are in charge and are the client," says James Goodwin, director of the Sealy Center on Aging at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. "The elderly individual is always in charge."
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