“Why can’t my children just get along?”, pleaded Mr. Rodriguez. The frail, 84 year old widower, sounded weary and discouraged as he waited for the family meeting with his three adult children to begin. He was in a rehab center recovering from a serious fall. His children had been arguing for days about where he would live following his discharge next week. Mr. Rodriguez was tense and concerned, watching from the sidelines.
Each daughter voiced a strong opinion: “Of course, he can go back to his apartment – that’s his home; he just needs safety bars in the shower.” “No, he should come home with Roger and me; he can’t live alone anymore.” “Absolutely not! He needs to be in a retirement community where professionals can give him 24-hour care.
Mr. Rodriguez and his daughters were fortunate when a social worker recommended a new service for families who are having difficult conversations about age-related issues. The facilitated family meeting takes strain and stress out of discussions about sensitive issues such as independence, health care, finances and hygiene. Family members discover that inviting a neutral facilitator into their private conversations is surprisingly comfortable and quickly improves the dynamics of their interaction. They are able to talk directly about their differences instead of engaging in distracting power struggles and blame games.
The Rodriquez family is no different from many families today who have good intentions but lack the skills to manage a complex discussion about the transitions of aging. They find themselves tossed on a rough sea of financial worries, long distance caregiving, unresolved family issues, and a multitude of health care choices. These conversations are often conducted in a time of crisis, when participants aren’t emotionally prepared or well-informed. There is a tendency to make false assumptions, seize upon simple solutions, and defend them relentlessly. In the Rodriguez family, no one had the patience or insight to notice the legitimate concerns underneath each daughter’s fiercely held position. Rita was afraid that Dad’s savings wouldn’t last if he moved to a retirement community, Marina was focused on ensuring Dad’s safety, regardless of cost, and Gabriella believed that Dad could only thrive if he lived with loving relatives.
Compassionate, experienced facilitators can elicit what is truly important to each person. They bring out the best in family members, ensuring in a situation like this that everyone – including Mr. Rodriguez – is heard in an atmosphere of openness and respect. A primary objective of the facilitated meeting is to bring clarity to a situation that is often laced with misunderstanding. A skilled facilitator asks non-threatening questions and feeds back what’s being said, filtering out inflammatory language. This approach creates a shared pool of accurate information that leads to better decisions. There’s no attempt by the facilitator to advise or direct. Family members voluntarily make their own informed choices at the conclusion of a much-improved conversation.
Everyone in the Rodriguez family benefitted from their facilitated meeting. In a little more than two hours, the daughters stopped arguing about which one had the “right” solution. Their focus shifted to a broader question that was much easier to discuss – “How can we meet Dad’s physical and emotional needs with our available resources?” The facilitation process unlocked their creative energies so that they identified and researched several workable options. Dad’s anxiety faded, as he experienced new respect from his children and saw fundamental goodwill restored to their relationships.
Family meeting facilitation, also known as “elder mediation”, is growing in popularity as baby boomers confront the challenges of their aging parents. The Association of Conflict Resolution recognizes elder mediation as a specialty area, as do numerous state mediator network groups. For information about facilitation and mediation and how to choose a qualified facilitator, contact www.acr.org , www.mediation.com, and www.eldermediationnetwork.com.
Jeannette Twomey, JD, has been practicing mediation and facilitation exclusively since 1992. As a principal in Mediate Virginia, LLC, (www.mediatevirginia.com) she provides services throughout Northern Virginia. She also trains mediators in elder mediation and mediator ethics through Northern Virginia Mediation Service, a community non-profit in Fairfax, Virginia.