Elder Mediation at Conflict Resolution Programs

Consider this scenario – At Senior Court in Superior Court, our mediator meets the parties, a mother in her 90’s and her son, late 60’s, in the corridor, explains the mediation process and once they agreed to mediate, sits down at a secluded table. They had gone before the court to request restraining orders against the other. The presenting cause of the dispute was over ownership of personal property. With skilled questioning from the mediator, the parties understood that the conflict over the personal property also included long-held resentments in their personal interactions. These parties left with their personal property issues resolved, talking with one another and most likely will not return to court. In this case the savings to the court was substantial, but more importantly saving their relationship was invaluable. Restoring relationships improves the likelihood the parties can avoid another court visit and support one another in the later stages of life. Gracefully negotiating through this life stage requires assistance from those people near us.

The Elder Mediation Program at Conflict Resolution Programs (CRP) began over two years ago, offering mediation and training specifically geared to address the concerns and needs of seniors. CRP has been serving Contra Costa since 1984, and this new focus is a response to the growing needs for resources for older residents as numbers in this population swell.

Our program realized early on that mediating with elderly participants required advanced training for experienced mediators. There are practical considerations (working with physical disabilities of elderly individuals) and social and generational considerations. Generational differences play a surprisingly important role in working with families. For instance, older generations sometimes consider bankruptcy shameful, receiving governmental benefits as a sign of a lack of self reliance and asking for help a character weakness. We address these and many other related issues in our training by inviting experts in the field of aging as speakers.

We created our program to be a comprehensive service. Our program has categorized resources in Northern California and ensures that each caller to our office receives several referral resources, even if mediation is not appropriate. As services dwindle in these tight economic times, we contact the referral resource to make sure they are still in business. The landscape is changing and we know we have to stay current. Our staffers are frequently out at senior centers, community meetings and senior service agencies explaining the benefits of elder mediation to families.

Not all mediations are family-centered. Many involve non-family-member caretakers. Take, for example, the case of a 106-year-old woman who was living in her home with a 24-hour caregiver. We sent our team of two mediators to her home and facilitated a discussion that resulted in an agreement, agreeable to both parties, brought out the unspoken feelings of each party and helped mend broken communication in this very important relationship. Their solutions allowed the elder to remain independent and living at home, the wish of many older adults and a savings to the community.

Our panel mediators are encouraged to honor the capacity that is present in each participant. A determination of decreased capacity is not the same as a determination of no capacity. At times it can be situational; For instance, mediations scheduled in the mornings and for shorter time periods, which can allow some people to attend at the time of day they are sharpest. Accommodations are always of the upmost importance in our mediation planning.

Elder mediation can be an alternative to the court system—as well as provide added value to the practice of law. Elders need “customized” services to meet their physical, social and emotional needs. Mediation is helpful before a legal consultation to narrow the division between the parties. How much of that division is due to relational issues that have existed for years? After a legal consultation, mediation is helpful for families to figure out how to work side-by-side in the care of their elders. Repaired and healed relationships may be the most valued legacy for a family to receive.

– For more information about our program and training, please contact Barbara Proctor, J.D. at the Center for Human Development, Conflict Resolution Programs, Elder Mediation, (925) 687-8844 ext. 250 or at barbara@chd-prevention.org. We are a non-profit organization and our fees are on a sliding scale. However, no one is ever turned away for lack of funds. We are also available for on-site presentations to groups.

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