Prime Time for Seniors  July, 2008, Vol. 23, No. 1, Pg. B17                                                                                                                            BACK                                                                                                                                                        




How do you decide where Mother will live when she can no longer live alone?  What do you do with the property that Dad left for all his children to divide?  How can you make sense of the many choices there are for end-of-life care...especially if each person in the family has a different opinion?  What can you say to ease the difficulty of Dad having to give up driving?  There are many difficult decisions to make and tough conversations that families must have as a loved one grows old.  Some of them are avoided because they are tinged with harsh disagreement or feelings of anxiety.  Sometimes these issues become roadblocks to good decision-making, and families may find themselves at an impasse.


Disagreement is a normal part of any relationship.  It is natural to see things from one’s own point of view, to feel things differently than another person, or to understand a situation from personal experience.  In many ways, disagreement is necessary to help define a person’s individuality and uniqueness.  What makes a disagreement disagreeable, however, is when unpleasant feelings of anger, resentment, or isolation surface.  Then the disagreement may become a dispute that can truly separate people and break down the communication necessary to solve problems.  For situations like this, mediation may be a very helpful process for reaching a solution that meets everyone’s needs.


Mediation as a tool for dispute resolution is not new.  It is a process that is often used for divorce cases, environmental and workplace disputes, and other kinds of civil disagreements, as a preferable alternative to going to court.  But only recently has mediation been applied to conflicts about eldercare issues. With changing demographics, economics and family interests, elder mediation’s time has come.


How is mediation different from other services that help families find solutions for problems related to eldercare?  Mediation is a confidential, non-adversarial process that allows all parties to identify their interests and find a resolution to meet everyone’s needs.  Certainly, there are many types of help available for seniors and families, including care managers, counselors, doctors and nurses, and even elder law attorneys. An eldercare mediator, however, is an impartial facilitator who helps the family find its own creative solution without taking sides. 


The mediation process has many advantages for helping families work through disagreements about eldercare concerns.  It empowers all participants equally, allows the parties to address underlying issues and problems, and encourages creative problem solving.  Mediation is generally a short-term process that can save families time and money.  Sometimes a family conflict becomes hostile and adversarial and in those cases, mediation may help prevent a dispute from having to go to court.  Perhaps most importantly, elder mediation allows the senior to maintain his or her own dignity and autonomy through direct involvement in the process whenever possible. 


Differences of opinion about eldercare can often re-stimulate uncomfortable family dynamics that may have been in the making or under the surface for many years or decades.  In such situations, family members often make assumptions about one another that may or may not be true, or even communicated to one another.  Literally, the past can come back to haunt and to affect the family’s ability to resolve important problems in the future.  Often, family members may avoid talking about these awkward or painful disagreements, which can then lead to permanent rifts in family relationships. 


In the mediation process, everyone has a chance to tell their “story” and to share their point of view.  In so doing, they often find they have much more in common than that which keeps them apart on an issue and they have an opportunity to address some of the difficult family dynamics.  Mediators are skilled at helping people find the common ground and common interests.  These become the building blocks for a creative solution that all can embrace.  In some cases, mediation actually helps to transform family relationships from being strained to becoming creative and supportive. 


The issues of eldercare are often complex and require a collaborative effort to determine the best solution.  Elder mediators often call on the expertise of other professionals who are already working with the family, and can also make appropriate referrals when needed.


Although conflict is a natural part of any relationship, not all conflict needs mediation. When mediation is needed, it is best to address the conflict as early as possible. The best way to determine if mediation is right for you is to call an elder mediator. A good mediator will spend some time, at little or no charge, listening and explaining how mediation can help.


John Rymers, Debbie Reinberg, and Ken Helander are partners in ELDEResolutions, a mediation practice that specializes in eldercare issues throughout the Denver metro area.  They can be reached at (303) 268-2280, or  For more information visit