Prime Time for Seniors  October, 2008, Vol. 23, No. 4, Pg. B7                                                                                                              BACK


Caregiving by Committee


By Ken Helander


I lived in Alaska for many years, where there were a lot of moose running around.  They are huge animals and look rather awkward, even though they can move effortlessly through dense woods and deep snow. Nevertheless, they are a comical assemblage of body parts that don’t all seem to go together.  The running joke there was that a moose is a horse designed by a committee.  This homely description is offered to illustrate something that can happen to families who become responsible for an elder.


Parenthood is well established within our society with clearly defined roles, expectations, and authority.  There are plenty of role models, self-help books, Dr. Spock, and generations of precedent that make it pretty clear what a mom or dad is supposed to do as they raise their children.  There are even laws that exist to either support or penalize parents for their parental practices.  Furthermore, there is fairly wide agreement about the differences between a mother and a father, though their roles undergo continuous redefinition, even within families.  Parents are the horse.


Caregiving families are the moose.  The role reversals of parent-to-child and child-to-parent relationships present awkward scenarios of decision-making by committee.  When all the children and the elder agree, the committee can be efficient and things get done with a minimum of stress and strain.  Usually, in this case, there is a defined leader or surrogate decision-maker who represents the elder’s interests and carries out his or her wishes with the support of the other siblings.  When there is no designated leader or there are differences of opinion, however, that moose is going to stumble and get its antlers tangled in the branches.  No one wants to get close to an angry moose. 


Most of us have had some kind of experience serving on a committee or board.  There are good ones and bad ones.  The mission and the purposes for which they exist usually effectively guide professional boards and committees.  The members are part of the committee because they all share an interest in fulfilling the organization’s goals.  Homeowners’ associations are another example of a committee, but they are notoriously difficult to participate in due to each member having very personal and often differing interests, from financial and aesthetic to individual rights and responsibilities.  This type of committee is often driven more by strength of personality and property share than common interest, and meetings can easily become quite contentious.


Caregiving families often become a committee without clear roles, or with competing interests.  Sometimes the committee roles are driven by negative experiences that happened decades ago, in childhood, and have either festered below the surface or gotten worse over time.  Occasionally, family members may not even be on speaking terms with one another.  And now, here they are thrown together as a committee to help take care of mom or dad in their old age. 


For some, it may be their last chance to earn their parent’s favor and approval after years of feeling they could never measure up.  For others, it might be the chance to get even with that sibling that always got their own way, or seemed to be the unworthy favorite.  Sometimes it just comes down to differences in the way family members believe and think.  “Mom should be allowed to die with dignity, without tubes and heroic measures to keep her alive.”   “No! Life is sacred and we should do everything possible to preserve it.”  Or, how about, “Dad is not safe living alone and he should be in a facility where he can be well cared for.”   “No!  I would never let Dad go to a nursing home.  I promised him I’d take care of him myself.” 


These are common themes in eldercare.  A family committee that doesn’t communicate and plan well is bound to face even more stress and frustration than is already a typical part of the caregiving experience.  Sometimes families work through these issues on their own, to their credit.  But, sometimes they get stuck in their positions of self-interest and lose track of the committee’s purpose….to make sure mom or dad get the care they need.  In the end, each family member wants to be able to look back and know they did the best they could and to be at peace with their efforts. 


This is where elder mediation can be of great help.  The eldercare mediator helps the family committee, through an impartial role, to identify their common interests and to find a mutually satisfying and effective solution to the problem.  The mediator can help that caregiving by committee to resemble a horse instead of a moose.


There are many books and articles available, and websites on the Internet that provide more information about the benefits of mediation and ways it can help in eldercare.


Ken Helander is a partner in the elder mediation firm of ELDEResolutions.