Article Series

Your Family Matters: Communicate Before It’s Too Late

Submitted by Beth Brown Ornstein, Colorado Mediation Center, LLC and Ronnie Rosenbaum, Dispute Resolution Centre of Colorado. More information about the authors is posted are the bottom of this article.
Website: www.coloradomediationcenter.com.
Website: www.divorceresourcecentre.com

Mary, an 80 year old widow experiencing various physical ailments as well as symptoms of age related memory loss, and her two daughters Sarah and Susie, are in the midst of a conflict with the potential for serious consequences. Sarah, who lives nearby, visits Mary almost every day to help her, and is frustrated with and concerned by her mother’s recent cognitive and behavioral changes. Living in a neighboring state, daughter Susie visits her mother three to four times a year. Sarah believes it is time for Mary to move into assisted living, Susie insists that Mary is just confused. Unfortunately, the last few times Sarah and Susie tried to speak with each other, they ended up shouting and hanging up the telephone on each other. Mary insists that she can live at home without any help.

As our families age, we experience life transitions and needs, some of which didn’t even exist for previous generations. Good communication between family members is essential to navigating this often uncharted territory, and in making decisions that may be difficult. Unfortunately, many of us have trouble talking with our family members about the issues that arise.

When this happens, it may be helpful to engage a third party mediator experienced in family dynamics relating to issues of aging. The mediation process is confidential, and the mediator facilitates discussions but does not make decisions for the family members. The mediator will help family members navigate logistical issues, emotional histories and experiences that often impede effective communication, while focusing on achieving their important goals. Most mediators charge an hourly rate. Many are flexible about meeting in their offices or at a family member’s home. The mediator typically prepares a Memorandum of Understanding to record specific agreements reached during the mediation process.

In our example, Sarah obtained a referral for a Mediator from a respected source. As requested by Sarah, the Mediator contacted both Susie and Mary to invite them to participate in the mediation process. Both agreed, and Susie agreed to split the fee with Sarah. Two two-hour mediation sessions were scheduled for the next month when Susie would be in town. They were scheduled in the morning, when Mary is the most energetic. Prior to the first mediation session, the Mediator spoke individually with Sarah, Susie, and Mary about their concerns.

At the first session, the Mediator presented a proposed agenda to address the following issues and goals:

  • improve communication
  • meet Mary’s transportation needs
  • support Mary’s mental & physical health
  • maintain Mary’s safety
  • promote independence for Mary in her living situation
  • make best use of family finances
  • maintain good relationships between Mary and each daughter
  • maintain a good relationship between the sisters
  • minimize stress for everyone

During both sessions, when the discussion occasionally became emotional, the Mediator helped the family members focus on the strategies for addressing these issues by reflecting on their shared goals. By the end of the sessions, Sarah, Susie and Mary agreed to schedule an appointment for Mary with her physician to review her medications and mental status. They also agreed on an allocation of expenses to make some minor home repairs and hire a caregiver to help Mary in her home. Finally, they agreed to review the situation in four months, with the Mediator if needed.

In this example, the Mediator assisted Sarah, Susie and Mary to start speaking again with each other about significant issues and focus on existing facts. Utilizing the expertise of the Mediator, this family has increased its ability to preserve and strengthen its relationships as Mary’s safety and comfort are protected. While the family’s challenges are not over, the sisters are in a better position to work together with their mother to plan their future in ways that will best meet all of their needs.

Posted June 2013 on www.SeniorsResourceGuide.com