The process of caring for an elder family member involves a myriad of decisions, ranging from how the elder’s health care needs will be met to who will manage the elder’s finances. These decisions require careful planning and discussion between family members. Families who historically collaborate and resolve issues through open discussion are better able to navigate the decisions involved in eldercare. For these families, caregiving is a unifying force that improves family relationships and leads to care-family balance, where family members are able to maintain a positive relationship between elder caregiving and family life.
Families who struggle with decision-making and who engage in chronic, unresolved disputes, in contrast, have difficulty in managing eldercare decisions. These families may not know how to organize care and fall into patterns of constant disagreement, which strains family relationships and leads to conflict.
Elder mediation is an alternative dispute resolution process to help families navigate eldercare decision-making. This process involves a third-party who fulfills a facilitative role in helping families to define goals, address issues of contention, and generate ideas for resolution. The facilitative nature of this process (as opposed to evaluative or directive) promotes collaborative decision-making amongst families, where the elder mediator guides families in using strategies that can help them to make better decisions on their own and eliminate the need to return to the court to make decisions for them.
This model entails that all stakeholders, including family members, caregivers, and attorneys, meet together in scheduled sessions where issues are clearly defined. As elder mediator Mary Hoeller describes:
The mediator assists family members in determining who needs to participate in the mediation. Each session ends with an understanding of the additional information that is needed…Via active participation by all members, issues are effectively addressed and possible resolutions discussed…Each participant is asked to identify the issues he/she would like to have addressed, regardless of whether any agreement can be reached on the topic.
The elder mediator works with all participants to identify issues, encourage group discussion about those issues, determine whether additional information is needed, and define next steps for obtaining needed information and reaching resolution of identified issues. Elder mediation is customized to the specific situation and participants, which allows for goals to be specifically defined and addressed and for the elder mediator to open discussion that is focused on those goals. The facilitative model of elder mediation, in which the mediator is in charge of the process and the participants are in charge of the outcome, provides families with the opportunity to clarify concerns, share resources, consider alternatives, and find solutions.
During the process, the facilitative elder mediator does not resolve conflict for the participants. Rather, the elder mediator helps participants identify conflict and implements strategies to guide the participants on managing conflict on their own. The elder mediation process gives the parties the opportunity to deal with emotional issues in a way that traditional litigation cannot. An elder mediator who demonstrates empathy and structures an environment in which the participants can voice their concerns (through reflecting the emotions behind the participants’ words, reframing the issue, and encouraging the participants to help each other understand their values and perspectives) can navigate conflict and use interventions as a way to teach conflict management.
Elder mediation embraces the facilitative model to manage large group discussions amongst family members and other stakeholders to address issues in eldercare. While the mediator role is not strictly a facilitator role, the elder mediator employs a variety of facilitative strategies and stages to help families have structured conversations about the issues that are important to them. Throughout the process, the elder mediator helps families to be able to make decisions on their own and reach agreement on issues. The elder mediator instills decision-making power in the parties and offers them the conflict resolution skills they can use to develop their own solutions to problems. In this vein, the elder mediator engages the parties in “high-quality, facilitated conflict resolution and decision-making” about issues involving the care and needs of an elder.
It represents the preferred alternative to litigation when parties need assistance in resolving disputes and working within family dynamics.