Elder-care mediators help resolve feuds

By Sandra G. Boodman
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The elderly man became increasingly alarmed as the battles among his five grown children grew acrimonious.

His two daughters, worried that he wasn't taking proper care of himself, wanted him to move to a retirement community. His three sons balked, insisting that he was managing fine in his own home. At a family meeting their father made this jarring announcement: I'm nearing the end of my life, and you are making me so unhappy that it might be easier if I killed myself and ended the fighting.

His threat shocked the warring siblings into resolving their dispute, according to lawyer Karolyn Blume of Arlington, who was present at the meeting. Blume did not represent any of the parties but served instead as a new kind of geriatric specialist: an elder-care mediator. In the past decade or so, the use of mediation, increasingly common in divorce and child-custody cases, has expanded into a new realm. Mediators, many of whom have legal training, are offering services to help splintered families resolve highly emotional disputes over the care and finances of aging parents, the allocation of an estate, even end-of-life treatment.

Unlike lawyers who are hired to advocate for one side, elder-care mediators function as impartial observers in a voluntary process designed to be less adversarial - and cheaper - than a court proceeding. Mediation is increasingly being recommended by lawyers and judges to families for whom a temporary stalemate or long-term estrangement has morphed into a full-blown crisis, often triggered by parental disability. Mediators say their job is not to dictate a solution, but to establish a framework for making decisions and to forge a consensus that is right for a particular family.

"We focus on communication skills and analyzing family dynamics, and trying to get everyone on board," said Janet E. Mitchell, an Indiana lawyer who directs the Midwest Mediation Training Center in Fort Wayne and is co-founder of a Web site called Eldercare Mediators.com. "Families are typically pretty bad off before they hire us."

Blume estimates that more than 80 percent of the 100 elder cases she mediated in Pennsylvania, where she practiced for years until recently when she moved to Arlington, were successfully resolved. "I think before mediation, there were just fights," she said. "People are starting to see that there is an alternative."

'Mom always liked you best'

While the cost varies depending on a mediator's location and experience - the hourly rate ranges from $150 to more than $400 per hour, according to Mitchell - it is usually less expensive than going to court. Some mediators, who typically sign confidentiality agreements, work in teams to guard against the appearance of favoritism, a complaint epitomized by the phrase many say they hear with surprising frequency, not to mention vehemence: "Mom always liked you best."

"It makes it sound petty, but it's not," said Louise Phipps Senft, founder of Baltimore Mediation. "It's very real." But the mediators' focus is not on exploring old wounds but on ensuring that the views of all participants are heard in making decisions.

While mediators say the demand for their services is growing - "Everyone tells me, 'I know someone who could really use you,' " one said - many participants are reluctant to discuss their experiences. None of the six mediators interviewed for this story - or others contacted through an e-mail group list - was able to find a family willing to talk about the process.

Many clients feel "there's a negative connotation to mediation," said Massachusetts mediator Rikk Larsen, who says families may be embarrassed that they are unable to make decisions on their own and need to hire a professional to help them.

Larsen, a founder of Elder Decisions, a firm that conducts sessions and trains mediators, says their use has mushroomed for reasons both demographic and cultural. Americans age 85 and older comprise one of the fastest-growing segments of the population, according to the Census Bureau, and their children, the baby boomers, "are comfortable with the notion of therapy and [experts who provide] services," he said.

But unlike with lawyers or social workers, from whose ranks mediators are often drawn, the practice is virtually unregulated and there is no standard set of requirements, which concerns some geriatric experts.

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