Have you noticed the ads for senior dating sites? People are living longer and, in addition to the inevitable fact of becoming a widow/widower, the incidence of divorce over the age of 60 has increased, resulting in an increased pool of single, mature adults. Re-marrying at any point in life has its complications, and re-marrying later in life is no exception, even if the kids are now adults and living independently.
Aside from the problem of gaining acceptance for a stepparent, there are concerns over estates and genuine worries about protecting the lifetime assets that are meant to insure the later years of an aging parent. Seniors who are marrying are often retired and on fixed incomes, relying on their savings to last and see them through any future disability.
We hear from parents whose children are no longer speaking to them, either because they do not like the new spouse, or they are angry over sharing their expected inheritance. We hear from children who are, indeed, upset about the inheritance they expected from their parents or, are now caring for a parent who has been financially crippled by a divorce and has now lost the financial protection they had amassed over a lifetime of work. Amid all of this anger and hurt, there are legitimate concerns and ways to avoid pitfalls and family discord.
Seniors, or those re-marrying at any age, can take steps to protect the assets they have accumulated during their prior marriage. Couples sometimes make assumptions based on their previous experience when they first married and before they had a family. Now they are marrying with their own families in place. This is when the advice of an experienced financial planner and trusts and estates lawyer can help safeguard against future problems for the couple and their heirs. Assets do not have to be combined and maybe should not be; financial arrangements can be put in place that protect them and their assets. Then, consider sharing these plans with the children. Let them know your wishes. It may result in some initial resentment or anger, but can save a lot of trouble down the road for the surviving spouse and families. Think about mediation if you cannot have this conversation alone.
No, parents do not have to live out their retirement years skimping in order to leave inheritances. They should be able to enjoy what they have worked for. Sharing your philosophy and plans, and listening to your children’s concerns and advice, might be the best way to start off a new life together.
Stress in American life has been a popular topic for a long time. We have been dealing with it from an early age; remember studying for tests in school or waiting for the college admissions letter? This was just the beginning. Whether it’s commuting, home repairs, deadlines, or caregiving, we have a lot of stress factors in our daily life. Some we can control, some we can’t. As we get older, we are often not as susceptible to some of the old stress factors, having more distance and maturity to deal with them. Or some of us are retired and have retired some of our work stress. But for many of us, the one stress that seems to survive and, for some people thrive, is family stress.
So many of us dread the holidays, which seem to come around with increasing frequency as we age. Relationships with siblings or parents that were tense growing up, seem to have gotten worse as time has gone by. It doesn’t matter that some of the disagreements are rooted in our teen years or earlier, these disputes that drove us apart have grown and festered with time and we have avoided dealing with them. I know people who have reconciled when a parent has died but shouldn’t we be thinking about our relationships now and not wait for something so drastic? I have worked with adults who have elderly parents where fights over their care and estates has divided the siblings and shattered their shared family lives. Despite what seems like insurmountable obstacles, family tension is one area where we can have some control and often need to find ways to move forward as we get older.
Sometimes family stress involves accepting a new family dynamic. As more people re-marry in later years, adult children find themselves having to accept step-parents and adapt to blended families at an older age. Those transitions can be difficult and hard to talk about. Holidays and family events can become even more complicated and there can be a lot of hurt to get over. Maybe there’s another way of looking at it: How lucky Mom/Dad is to find love at this age! It may take a while to get to this outlook but isn’t it worth trying?
There are costs to not maintaining a relationship with family. For one thing, when we separate ourselves from them we are also denying our children formative relationships with their grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. I have had conversations with young adults whose parents are in business and not speaking. These young adults requested an intervention for their elders so they can, once again, have holiday dinners together. A person who had been in business with his uncle decided, after an unpleasant split in the business, that they would suspend all animosity for family occasions so as not to jeopardize the greater family relationships. My friend, who had stopped speaking to her sister after her mother died a few years ago, recently invited her sister to an event and was delighted when it went well. They will never be best friends but their families will be spending the next holiday together. Do not underestimate the value of the occasional phone calls from nieces and nephews and extended family as we age and our circles get smaller.
I sometimes hear siblings say, “I wouldn’t speak to my sister/brother if I didn’t have to.” That may well be true but life’s circumstances sometimes force the need for communication. Caring for elderly parents usually falls to adult siblings. For those who have had an ongoing good relationship, these tense circumstances can be easier to deal with. But for those who do not have a good rapport with siblings, sharing responsibility for the care of a parent becomes more complicated and unpleasant for all involved. As I often tell adults whose parents are in their 80’s and 90’s, it’s not a question of if something happens with elderly parents, it’s a question of when. Isn’t it better to think ahead and be prepared to work together, relieving some of the stress and anxiety that comes with the situation?
No, our siblings may not be the easiest people to get along with, but then again, we are no longer living with them. It’s not about going back in time and reliving the hurts and injuries of the past; it’s about finding a way to move forward. Maybe with a little effort and, if necessary, with a little assistance, we can repair these damaged relations, minimize the stress and hurt, and get what we can and give what we can with a different perspective in our later years.
Recently I was at an event where a guest with Frontal Temporal Dementia was present. This is a brilliant man who has had the disease for over four years and is now left with a rapidly progressing, debilitating disease. The guests knew he had dementia although not necessarily the type. As is often the case, most people when thinking of dementia, were expecting Alzheimer’s Disease and seeing someone similarly afflicted. Many of the people were actually relieved to see how well he is functioning. This conclusion was based on the fact that he knew their names and was very sociable. The fact that he is incapable of speaking even the briefest of sentences or expressing himself verbally was not factored into their assessment. Frontal Temporal Dementia presents differently from Alzheimers. The person doesn’t become withdrawn. They lose all inhibitions – it does, after all, affect the temporal lobe – are unable to find words, and lose their muscle strength.
This is just one of the many isolating experiences caretakers for people with dementia, any kind of dementia, face: the gap between their reality and other people’s perspectives.
Friends who have relatives with dementia have described how after encountering friends or neighbors on the street, people will remark that the person with dementia seems to ‘be not that bad’. They base that on the fact that the person has been able to nod at appropriate times or cover for their lack of understanding in other ways. The caretaker however, knows that person can no longer watch or comprehend a television program and is incontinent, a very different perspective. It’s often these disconnects in reality that make the caretaker feel isolated. They are seeing the ravages of dementia up close while the fleeting glance can appear very different to those who are ill-informed or see a glimpse of it. Whatever the kind of dementia, it’s an isolating experience living with someone who has dementia.
A friend of mine who has a sister with early onset Alzheimer’s pointed out another aspect of dementia: unlike other debilitating and fatal diseases, those with dementia cannot express their wishes which creates a conflict-causing vacuum. I have seen this up close and it is a difficult situation. A person gets dementia and, even if he/she has clearly planned and expressed his/her wishes, family members and friends ‘know’ what the person would want. (If they haven not planned for the future, the situation is worse.) She hears, “I know she would want…” all the time, whether the person actually has some insight or not. Although every one may be well-meaning, the assumed desires of the patient may put the family members in conflict over the care of their relative. In my friend’s case, she has the power of attorney but needs to consider the desires of her young adult nephews and, in this case, her sister’s interfering ex-husband. In cases where adult siblings do not agree on the care and wishes of their parent, disagreements can fray relationships and leave the disabled parent without the care and services they need while the children argue about it. There are so many sensitive decisions to be made: taking away the driver’s license, insuring the person’s safety, getting an aide, deciding on the right living situation, getting the finances in order. These decisions all require a united family or at least one that is in agreement on important issues.
Advanced planning and expressing one’s desires about care are so important but often an avoided conversation. Caring for a person with dementia is stressful enough. A facilitated conversation might ease the way for moving ahead and getting the person with dementia the needed care. It is best to fill that vacuum with consensus.
Fear is a strong emotion. We can experience it walking down a dark street and we can experience it watching a suspenseful movie. We can also experience extreme physical symptoms with fear. Our heart beat may accelerate causing panic attacks, our palms may sweat, we may feel weak and dizzy and we may become very anxious if the fear escalates. No matter what the symptoms may be, fear is an emotion that most people would like to avoid. And the fear you feel, whether real or not, can turn into anger.
Family members can also experience fear when there is conflict within the family. For example, let’s say your mother’s dementia is progressing and you view your sister’s care for your mother inadequate. Yet, for some reason, you are afraid to discuss the matter with your family. Perhaps, as children, your sister was one tough cookie and you never won an argument with her. Or the sight of your mother’s condition scares you so much that you can’t begin a conversation about her care. So instead of doing something you sit in silence and watch things deteriorate.
Having these much needed family conversations is so important for you, your mother and for your family relationships. Yet, the fear keeps you silent until a crisis happens and then the family is in chaos and unable to arrive at the best decision.
Family Mediation has been effective in helping family members manage their fear in order to resolve family conflict. When family members are at a mediation session, a trained neutral mediator assists in creating a safe platform for everyone to air their concerns without being belittled and dismissed by other family members. In fact, ground rules that specifically address this matter are addressed at the beginning of the session. More importantly, the mediator will make sure that each family member listens to and understands what is being said so that they can respond in an appropriate meaningful way. Once this process begins, the fear and potential anger dissipates and family members begin to relax, feeling confident that they are being heard. Finally, the family is on the road to reaching a mutually agreeable resolution.
At one family session I mediated with my partner, Gail, one daughter was initially afraid to be in the same room with her sister. She experienced physical and emotional fear. Each sister took a turn explaining their concerns about the care of their mother and the role each daughter had in that care. As mediators, we made sure that the details, feelings and reasons for these concerns were expressed. After going back and forth making sure that everyone was on the same page as to what was being said, the way in which the sisters communicated changed. They no longer were angry, fearful, or resistant to the process. At the end, the sisters were able to reach an agreement regarding the care of their mother and they even hugged one another.
Rather than reliving childhood family dynamics in fear, family members can communicate effectively with the help of a family mediator. Therefore, the next time you are afraid to talk to a family member, ask yourself if the fear you are feeling is working for you. When you realize it isn’t, think about family mediation.
A Recipe for Conflict: Different Styles of Communication
Deborah Tannen, a linguist, has written extensively on issues of communication and the difficulty people have talking to one another. She’s written about communication between couples, among families, between mothers and daughters and between sisters. It’s so interesting for me to read these. I relate to them from my own family situations, have seen my friend’s families reflected in her writing, and, as a mediator working with families, I hear the voices of people with whom I have worked.
The points Ms. Tannen make are so relevant to our lives. She writes about the power relationship that plays a role in interaction with mothers and daughters. How often have we bristled at the criticism from our mothers, whose approval we seek, while accepting the same remarks from our friends? While many people have written about sibling rivalry, Tannen writes about how that rivalry and the roles assigned to us as children effect our communication as adults.
Through our mediation practice, we see how the competitiveness of sisters, starting from a young age, impedes their ability to talk to one another without the past getting in the way. This so often boils down to the proverbial, ‘Mom always liked you best’, a conversation stopper for siblings. And then there are the labels that are given to children and stick with them even when they are adults. Giving kids titles like ‘the smart one’ or ‘the talented one’ is likely to cause the resentment which surfaces over the years and obstructs any meaningful communication. Each sibling is an individual and has his/her own conversation style. Some people are reserved when they talk, others aggressive, some emotional and these style differences, when interacting, can lead to ineffective communication. Sometimes the conversations cannot get past the style to the substance. After childhood, siblings can avoid dealing with these life-long antagonisms but later in life they may resurface and interfere with necessary conversations.
As mediators, we have seen siblings who are now confronted with the need to talk about serious issues regarding their parent’s well-being or estate matters. The inability to get past the old rivalries, resentments or ‘he said, she said’ conversations keeps them from being able to talk, have relationships with each other and their nuclear families, and deal productively with issues that require a resolution. For some people, a facilitated conversation is the best options for preserving relationships, resolving conflicts, making joint decisions, and being able to move forward, rather than letting the past get in the way. Tip: Consider reading Ms. Tannen’s book before those difficult conversations and make an outline that can guide the points you want to make and sticks to the issues.
We’ve heard a lot about Donald Trump’s deal making skills lately and how he plans, as President, to make huge trade deals that will benefit the United States. However, after all this talk about how Trump will make these successful deals, I am left with the feeling that Trump is only interested in a deal that gives him what he wants with no regard to the needs of the other party. As an alternative to “deal making,” mediation provides an environment where there is an equal balance of power so that parties can reach a mutually agreeable resolution.
Deal making and mediation are similar since they both provide a process in which parties can reach an agreement or resolution. However, there are significant differences in how these procedures achieve this goal. The deal making/negotiation procedure tends to focus on how you can get your opponent to agree with your terms. That would be a successful agreement. On the other hand, mediation, with the help of trained mediators, encourages parties to have an open and honest conversation so that everyone understands the positions and underlying concerns being expressed at the table. Once that is achieved, the parties can then become creative and discuss a resolution that benefits both parties. A mediated resolution does not always mean that there is a compromise where a party has to give up something to reach an agreement. Rather, through mediation, the parties agree to terms that they both believe give them the best resolution, thereby establishing a win-win situation.
Unlike negotiation, mediation provides a process where parties are more likely to feel like they both got a good deal. Walking away from the table with that feeling can only ensure that the parties will comply with the terms of the agreement. More importantly, such good feelings will preserve the parties’ relationship, whether they are family members or business associates.
As a mediator who specializes in elder/family mediation, I frequently get asked to compare family mediation and family therapy. Usually a family member tells me that the mediation process sounds like therapy. While the two processes share certain elements, they are completely different.
MedicineNet.com gives the following definition of family therapy , “Family therapy: A type of psychotherapy designed to identify family patterns that contribute to a behavior disorder or mental illness and help family members break those habits. Family therapy involves discussion and problem-solving sessions with the family. Some of these sessions may be as a group, in couples, or one on one. In family therapy, the web of interpersonal relationships is examined and, ideally, communication is strengthened within the family.”
On the other hand, family mediation is about resolving a dispute. It is about family members finding a way in which they can reach a mutually agreeable resolution to a dispute. The dispute can be about the care of an elderly family member or the sale of the family summer home. Family mediation does not dwell on family dynamics, the role each family member plays in the family or family history. Moreover, unlike family therapy, family mediation is a shorter process. Families come together for only a few hours in order to find a resolution.
Family mediation and therapy do share some elements. Both are about communication and they both provide a safe environment where family members can engage in open and honest discussions. Family therapy and mediation also have a common benefit of improving family relationships and the way families handle future conflict.
Although family therapy and family mediation appear to be similar because they both involve families and the way families communicate, the orientation of each process is significantly different. Families need to be cognizant of these differences in order to select the process that can best address and meet their family needs.
We practice family mediation with a specialty in Elder and Adult Family mediation and Parent and Teen mediation. Our focus is on communication between family members and preserving family relationships. Most people associate mediation with labor disputes and divorce. It’s a great product we are selling, but most people do not know what it is. Instead they make assumptions, and they are often so far off the mark.
Mediation is a form of conflict resolution. There are a lot of similarities between what we do and what mediators are trying to accomplish in the Middle East. (A mediator in that region told me he would rather work with the parties from countries there than the combative families we see.) In both cases, people can not reach agreement on an issue, are stuck in their positions, and can no longer speak civilly to one another without someone facilitating the conversation and insuring it’s productive. Continue reading Why Refer To Us
As a member of the sandwich generation, I often hear my friends describe a family situation where an elderly parent is showing signs of becoming frail and forgetful and being more challenged by everyday tasks. In all these family situations the parent, or sometimes both parents, live alone. A caregiver may visit for a few hours each day, helping with shopping, meals and doctor visits. However, the geographical distance between the parents and family members is great. Although my friends recognize the vulnerability of their parents, they seem to be afraid to move forward to discuss a plan of action for the future. As a wise person once told me, our parents will never be as young or healthy as they are today.
So why are adult children afraid to talk to one another about the future care of their aging parents? Why are adult children afraid to discuss with their parents the possibility of moving closer to a sibling, the extended hours of a caregiver, the move to an assisted living facility or giving up driving? In some families, open and truthful conversations are rare or nonexistent. They have no practice in having real conversations about real issues. In other families, the relationship between the adult children is brittle, lacking trust. And some family members are just in denial and don’t want to deal with medical and care giving issues of their parents, which can feel so monumental at times.
As mediators, we repeatedly see family members in pain as they struggle to navigate the aging process of their parents. Even with the help of a geriatric care manager, the family members get stuck for whatever reason, and are unable to talk about these important family matters. As a result, the family goes on as if everything is fine and everyone is able to manage until a crisis erupts. While mediation is not therapy and will not address the psychology behind a family member’s behavior, it does bring family members together, perhaps for the first time, to openly address shared family issues that need to be discussed before things get out of hand. Talking about these important issues before a crisis will ensure an opportunity to timely and rationally analyze the situation and arrive at a sound decision.
As our parents, or relatives, age, it is time for the family to unite to create a future plan that works for the entire family. Family members need to have these difficult conversations in a real way to ensure that their aging parents are safe and that the family relationships survive. Mediation is a successful tool used to give families a way to effectively manage the aging process we all experience.