By Janet M. Powers
The adult children were at their wits’ end. Their aging mother was a generous soul, and when anyone phoned seeking funds for charity or a non-profit organization, she willingly agreed. Money that might be needed for medical care or future move to a nursing home was flowing too easily from her bank account. Her children wanted to put a block on her phone that would allow only designated callers to get through. But she wouldn’t hear of it. What to do?
A friend suggested that they contact Mediation Services of Adams County to see whether a mediator could help the family solve this problem. Because it was an elder mediation, it took place in the family home. And unlike mediations involving property settlement or custody issues (requiring two disputants and two mediators), this mediation involved a single mediator and a large number of family members. Also significant was the fact that the mediator too was a senior citizen.
When a mediator knowledgeable about elder issues is on the family scene, it is often easier to tackle the big questions and help to steer discussion toward a win-win situation. In this case, the mediator was able to identify with the problem of fund-raising calls and to encourage both parties to look for a way to lessen the number of calls. After much discussion, the mother eventually agreed to accept the solution that her children had proposed and the problem was resolved.
Often, the presence of a neutral third party is enough to calm the conflict and bring about productive discussion. What did the mediator do that the children were unable to do? For one thing, mediators are trained to reframe a conflict, to put the comments of both sides into language that is less likely to raise hackles. In this case, the mother also saw the mediator as someone her own age, someone who was an ally, unlike her children who seemed like adversaries. Even though the mediator was neutral, she was perceived as someone who understood the senior citizen’s point of view.
Mediation, based on a sliding income scale, is an inexpensive way to solve family conflicts. For $10 – $50 per party, a 2- to 3-hour mediation can take place. Even more important for family, there are no winners or losers in mediation. Rather, the goal is a solution that is agreeable to everyone concerned. All parties go away satisfied, which makes for continued good relationships. Possible alternatives, letting the problem fester or going the expensive legal route, may lead to just the opposite: an ongoing family feud.
Senior citizens are sometimes perceived by their adult children as stubborn and unwilling to do the reasonable thing, such as downsizing or moving to a retirement community. An elderly relative may feel overwhelmed by children ganging up on him/her. But the elder outlook, feeling vulnerable or fearing change, gets full attention in mediation when the mediator insists on hearing both sides of an issue. Being heard and respected is often the key to resolution of conflict, and a mediator can make that happen.
Janet M. Powers is an MSAC Board Member and Professor Emerita at Gettysburg College.