Mediators from across the state learn ways to settle conflicts related to aging

Resolving senior issues

December 14, 2005|By ANDREA F. SIEGEL | ANDREA F. SIEGEL,SUN REPORTER

The three sisters are fighting, arms flapping as they squabble over the future and dredge up affronts from childhood. Their mother is repeating to a lawyer that she doesn't want to cede control of her money, stroking her dog as she looks bewildered by the discussion. Her husband is reassuring her that her family wants the best for her, as he looks lovingly at a wife he is losing to dementia.

And two women are focusing this group on the issue at hand: to reach - if possible - a family agreement on how to help the elderly woman manage her finances and how to take care of the aging couple.

The scenario could have been playing out in many families. But this was role-playing in Annapolis to train mediators from across the state in how to handle disputes on issues related to aging.

Mediating senior issues is a burgeoning field, as baby boomers cope with the needs of elderly parents - and get a peek at what may lurk in their futures: guardianships, assisted-living conflicts, disputes over driving, financial management and romantic entanglements, age discrimination, diminished mental abilities, caregiver arrangements.

"Seniors have conflicts that in many instances are not being resolved," said lawyer Robert J. Rhudy, a former member of the advisory board to the state court office for mediation. He is also the consultant putting together what he and mediators hope will be the first of a series of training programs. "They don't feel like going to court," Rhudy said. "They are concerned about conflict with family members."

But, Rhudy said, often no decision is made. The problems - whether consumer, health or legal - fester until there is a crisis. That necessitates an immediate decision by a judge who is acting in the absence of relevant information. Especially where families and money are concerned, emotions run hot. The elderly person and family members all may gnash their teeth at a judge's decision.

"The court is not equipped to handle disputes where there are a lot of relationship problems. The court is not equipped to get involved in disputes that go back to whether mom liked you better than she likes me," said Rachel Wohl, executive director of the state judiciary's Mediation and Conflict Resolution Office.

Court-driven mediation has gone on for a number of years around Maryland, geared toward divorce, school problems and community spats. But this, mediators say, is a world apart for two main reasons - it typically is about preserving relationships and often involves a person who is disabled in some way.

"This is a family. When they start, they are a family. When they leave, they are going to be a family," said Lisa Bleich, a private mediator in Baltimore and a board member of the Mediation and Dispute Resolution Center of Baltimore County.

"I think the biggest issues are around making sure the elderly person is engaged. Usually, everyone is there to represent their own interests, but now you are talking about someone's competency with them in the room," said Bleich, who participated in the role-playing training session.

Touchy subject

And how much that person is included in the conversation is touchy, said Trish Miller, an Annapolis lawyer and president of the National Institute for Conflict Resolution. What people are not supposed to do is refer to the elderly mother as "she" while "she" is in the next chair - something the role-playing daughters did yesterday and that Miller reminded the two mediators not to do.

At the role-playing, the mother agreed to cede some control over her finances - but then she could not pick which daughter to place in the key role. With the mother out of the room, the daughters worked with a mediator to bury their differences, vowing to be less critical of each other and devising a plan for taking care of their mother and her husband.

Blessing A. Asher, guardianship manager and ombudsman volunteer developer for the Maryland Department of Aging, observed yesterday's session, which was part of a joint program between state courts and the Departments of Aging in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Frederick, Harford, Howard and St. Mary's counties, and Baltimore City.

Families in conflict

Asher's office has seen a 4 percent increase in the past year in public guardianships, resulting in 772 elderly wards of the state. As the state looks for alternatives to such guardianships, she said, it runs up against families in conflict, families in which all members - whether they live near or far - decline responsibility and point fingers at each other.

Within a few years, 1 million Marylanders will be over 65, Asher said, and increasing numbers threaten to exacerbate problems.

She wants people to explore the middle ground between doing nothing and landing in court.

"What we are saying is talk to one another," she said.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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