A 2024 feature article in the New York Times laid out the stark, emotional challenges that family caregiving can present at times. William, an 81-year-old husband, was showing increasing signs of dementia as his 83-year-old wife, Melissa, was doing her best to care for him. But Melissa faced her own memory problems. She would forget to give William his medications, or get the doses wrong. It was taking a toll on her own health.

Four adult children were naturally concerned. They had identified a nearby memory care facility where they thought William would be looked after better. But Melissa was opposed to the idea. One daughter said Melissa would not even discuss it. The family did persuade Melissa to accept a hired aide several days a week, but this still left the couple alone most of the day as well as overnight. The family continued to worry — about falls and fires and other risks.

The adult children were at an impasse. What could they do?

Through a friend, one of the daughters learned about a company offering “elder adult family mediation.” The family, including the parents, agreed to give it a try. The company’s founder and a co-mediator interviewed family members by phone, then scheduled a session at the parents’ home. The parents and their children spent about an hour and a half talking with two of the company’s staff. One of the daughters described the session as “a problem-solving meeting where everybody feels heard, everybody gets a say,” including William, the father. “We talked about compromise,” the daughter was quoted as saying. “What can you live with, and what can’t you live with? It was mostly a very loving attempt to find solutions.”

Long story short, with Melissa’s agreement, the family moved William into a new apartment a couple months later. “He was less isolated,” the Times article said, “grew friendly with the staff and other residents, and appeared to enjoy the activities. His wife visited once or twice a day, joining him for meals and fitness classes, and also seemed to benefit from the social interaction.”

Both William and Melissa eventually moved to the same memory care unit. They died four years apart, with William passing first. As one of their daughters looked back on it all, she said the mediation had been a huge help, and “I wish we’d done it two years earlier.”

What Coloradans Should Know about Family Mediation

The Times article went on to discuss several aspects of family mediation, pointing out that trained mediators can help families struggling with a variety of elder-care issues. These can include appropriate living arrangements, care responsibilities, communication and information sharing, and health and financial decisions. Among key points made were the following:

  • When families seek mediation, they typically want to do what is best, but they have different perspectives on what ‘best’ might mean.
  • Although courts can, and do, order elder mediation, more and more families seek elder mediation privately, before disputes land in court and imperil or destroy family relationships. One professional mediator observed, “If families can avoid litigation — its costs, its stress — they’ll get a better result. There won’t be a winner or a loser — there will be compromise.”
  • Mediation differs from arbitration, in which an arbitrator weighs the arguments and makes a determination that the antagonists agree to accept. By contrast, a mediator maintains neutrality and helps the parties reach consensus themselves, centered on the older adult’s needs and wishes.
  • Mediation also differs from family therapy, though sessions can get similarly emotional. Participants may grow angry or teary, nursing old wounds and airing grievances. Where therapists might focus on making everyone happy and loving each other, a mediator tries more to keep people talking and focused on the issues at hand in a calm manner.
  • Even people who lack capacity in the legal sense can often make their wishes known. When that’s not possible, mediators can draw on the person’s earlier statements or documents.
  • In some cases, the parties document their mediation decisions in a memorandum of understanding. There may also be an agreed upon list of next tasks, or a caregiving schedule. Families may agree on a method of exchanging information (e.g., a private family website, or text chain.) Also in some instances, mediators may remain in contact at the family’s request, to facilitate ongoing communications.
  • The process and whatever resolution is reached remain confidential. This is valuable because some families are embarrassed about acknowledging that they’ve sought mediation.
  • Mediation doesn’t always succeed. If key family members refuse to come to the table, mediation without them being present would not be appropriate. No one should feel coerced, and for successful mediation, participants have to show good faith and a willingness to grapple with a resolution.
  • When mediation does work, it can preserve or even strengthen bonds, allowing families to celebrate birthdays, graduations, and weddings together despite previous conflicts.

Where Can Coloradans Find Family Mediators?

The Times went on to note that because elder mediation is a fairly new field, with no nationwide certification or licensing requirements, approaches and costs vary. “A mediation can last for 90 minutes, three hours or a couple of days.” Some mediators are also lawyers, or social workers. Some bring elder law attorneys, or financial advisers, into the process.

One solo practice mediator in Texas charges $1,500 to $2,500 for most elder mediation cases. Some mediators charge by the hour — as much as $400 to $500 per hour. While the expense is not small, the Times mentioned that “the alternative can be devastating” because litigation can take months or even years and rack up costs in the tens of thousands of dollars.

To find trained mediators, families can consult the Mediation Association of Colorado MAC or the Colorado mediator list at Mediate – Colorado or the Academy of Professional Family Mediators. On these sites you can search specifically for “Elder Care” mediators if they are not immediately displayed. Mediation in some circumstances may be able to take place online, making it more widely available regardless of where family members live or where the mediator practices.