Outside the Box: Embroiled in a family feud? These people could help

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You get along well with your siblings. There’s peace in the family most of the time.

But when it comes to your aging parents’ health care or inheritance, all hell breaks loose.

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Kind, decent people can dissolve into grabby, vengeful enemies when their parents are in decline. Brothers and sisters can turn against each other in uncharacteristically nasty ways. To address such disagreements, families might enlist an impartial outsider for help. In recent years, elder mediators have positioned themselves to fill this role.

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“The number of elder mediators seems to be growing,” said Don Saposnek, a family mediator in Aptos, Calif. “It follows the demographics of more people getting old.”

Saposnek has found that tensions can boil over as a family wrestles with end-of-life issues.

“Siblings who always got along very well can start fighting with each other, stop talking to each other, steal jewelry or things of sentimental value and have a sense of entitlement that ‘Dad was closer to me so I’ll take his expensive tools out of the garage without telling anybody,’” he said. “People act in erratic and angry ways.”

When conflicts erupt, elder mediators guide families to bridge differences on matters such as caregiving, estate planning and living arrangements for an ailing parent. Siblings may also clash over how and whether to keep Mom or Dad alive.

As a mediator, Saposnek begins by getting to know the family. He seeks to harness their individual strengths.

“Usually, a family has a distribution of skills across siblings,” he said. “I elicit from each of them who’s tied into community resources, who’s a good researcher, who’s good at math or finance, who might be a nurse or doctor.”

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From there, he seeks everyone’s buy-in for a designated sibling to tackle a certain task. He may draft a binding agreement that specifies the goal—and how each family member will contribute his or her skills to advance everyone toward that goal—and asks all parties to sign it. He then follows a structured process to guide them to solve problems.

“I’m neutral,” he said. “I don’t make any decisions.”

Yet not all mediators maintain neutrality. Some adopt a more directive role, suggesting solutions and highlighting options—such as home health care resources or senior care programs—for families to consider.

There are pros and cons of both types of mediators. A neutral third party who encourages participants to gather their own information and forge their own solutions is more apt to retain credibility among all family members.

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But a mediator who shares eldercare knowledge can educate everyone on what’s available. Sifting through at-home services, assisted-living facilities and other long-term-care models can prove overwhelming to frazzled siblings who are already emotionally raw from pondering a parent’s demise.

Nina Kohn, a professor of law at Syracuse University, notes that mediators who lack a deep understanding of community resources for senior care may be counterproductive.

“Decisions can be made based on incomplete information that can lead to unintended consequences,” Kohn said. “They may not be aware of all their options, how to pay for care and who provides care. This can have implications down the road” such as making a parent ineligible for Medicaid benefits.

Moreover, she warns that elder mediators risk focusing too much on siblings’ views while overlooking the parent’s wishes.

“It’s important to give a voice to everyone at the table,” she said. “Others can gang up on an elder person. Even a person with cognitive decline has a right to make choices about their life.”

Yet Kohn adds that an elder mediator who opens up channels of communication among family members can play a vital role.

“There’s a lot of stress around eldercare choices and families face very difficult decisions,” she said. “Having an outside third party can provide real value to help with those decisions.”

To find a good mediator, Mediate.com and the Academy of Professional Family Mediators offer online listings.

Once you find a good mediator, the real work begins as the family confronts divergent opinions and seeks common ground. Even the best mediators cannot bring about a successful outcome if the rancor runs too hot.

Wise families don’t wait for end-of-life arguments to erupt. Instead, they convene when Mom and Dad are able to express their preferences, share inheritance plans and appeal to their adult children to get along and work together for everyone’s benefit.