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Being Happy With The ‘New Normal’

In a recent New York Times Well article by Jane Brody, she wrote, “…aging and illness alter who we are, so move on and make the best of the here and now.” This article and statement reminded me of aging parents who are stubborn and refuse to acknowledge and accept their limitations as they age.

In our mediation practice, we have come across parents living alone in their homes insisting that at the age of 90 they are able to maintain their independence and perform the daily tasks of grocery shopping, preparing meals and getting to doctor appointments on their own. While this sounds impressive and seems like a goal we should all try to achieve, and some nonagenarians are able to do this, the truth is that at the age of 90 these daily tasks become more challenging and stressful. If the adult children observe more closely, they will see their aging parents become more exhausted by these tasks, become more frustrated by these tasks and take unnecessary risks that increase their chances of falling and injuring themselves. So why do aging parents go to such lengths to be independent — Pride! Our aging parents have pride in aging gracefully and independently without seeking assistance from their children. Although they have aged, they have no intentions of changing the way they live. We all should get that and applaud the determination of a 90 year old to maintain a life that they have lived and have enjoyed for such a long time. However, there comes a time when circumstances have changed and it may no longer be wise for aging parents to continue living alone as if they were 50 years old.

So what can an adult child do in this situation? First, act early and quickly to prevent a crisis and serious accidents. As an adult child who either is involved or will become involved with your parents’ care, you have standing to discuss with your parents the ways in which they can balance their aging process with their desire to remain independent so that they remain safe. That may include getting an aide for a few hours a day who can help with cooking and doctor appointments and it may mean ordering groceries online instead of walking to the grocery store. It may also mean moving to an independent or assisted living facility. And if necessary, this discussion may progress as there are further needs for a safer environment.

The other important suggestion, which Ms. Brody highlights in her recent article, is that our aging parents should learn how to embrace and adjust their expectations regarding their changed circumstances. Instead of becoming angry and upset about the aging process, accept the changes and strive for a successful life with accommodations that make life easier and safer. There is no shame in accepting a new life style as you age. Perhaps as our parents age, they can become more involved in figuring out how they can create a new life that takes into account new safety limitations but is nevertheless fulfilling and engaging.


As mediators, we are required to take capacity into account when mediating. Capacity as we define it is the ability to enter into an agreement and be able to stick to it. Sometimes, when discussing proposed mediation sessions with adult children talking about their parent’s care we will discuss whether their parents can participate. People with advanced dementia or elderly parents with diminishing mental capacity are not able to coherently participate in decisions that ultimately everyone present will need to agree upon and carry out.

But it’s not just elderly or demented people who pose a problem. It’s not unusual for us to get a call from a sibling about mediation and during the course of the conversation have them mention that a sister or brother is ‘crazy’. Often times it may not be that particular sibling who is crazy; it may just be that they are hard to get along with or they are being the difficult ones in the conflict. But every once in a while, there is a family member who is mentally impaired and truly cannot engage in a serious conversation or the decision-making process. We rely on the other participants who know the person well to make that initial decision and ultimately our own judgment after speaking with him/her.

As well intentioned as people might be, it is up to family and professionals to take capacity into account for planning. Is this adult child able to be part of the conversations after a parent’s death? Is he/she capable of handling finances? Are the other adult children left with the task of including a sibling who doesn’t have the decision-making capacity? These are questions lawyers and financial advisors should be asking as they help their clients plan for the future.

Keeping Family Conflicts from Ruining the Holidays

November is here and the holidays are approaching! The excitement of decorating the house, creating dinner menus and specialty drinks, and being surrounded by family members is there-until some of the realities hit us. As we get closer to when our adult children come home and the extended family gathers, we start to remember the difficulties of having everyone in the house. Your children seem to argue with one another over little things when they are together, you find yourself walking on egg shells to avoid a fight with your daughter and none of your siblings want to discuss the elephant in the room: are your aging parents okay living at home or do we need to consider alternatives. It’s exhausting!

Being with our children and family should not be this difficult. These are our most important relationships in life and throughout the years we should enjoy our families as they grow. To improve our family relationships we may want to examine the way in which we communicate with one another.

To begin with, try having honest conversations with each family member in advance of the holidays and discuss the ways we can avoid the arguments. Acknowledge trigger points and hot topics dto be avoided. Honest conversations mean you have to leave your anger, guilt and fear out of the conversation and show your family your loving and supportive intentions to create meaningful relationships and fun for the holidays. In addition, it is equally important to take ownership of behavior that may trigger anger from your loved ones and discuss the ways in which you can reframe your words to modify the message. Your children and family members love you and you love them. There is no reason you cannot engage in conversations without someone becoming explosive. But it takes time, planning and an understanding that words and the way we speak to one another have consequences. As parents and as hosts for this Holiday season, we may want to shake things up and try a different approach to achieve the Hallmark Thanksgiving dinner we all want to achieve.

Happy Holidays!

The Vacuum Caused by Dementia


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.

Gail Goodman





Why I Should Have Chosen Mediation

My friend, let’s call her Cathy, has had a difficult relationship with her widowed father for a while now. She is part of an informal, blended family. Her father lives in a nearby city and is not married, but has been living with a woman for several years. The father lives in the woman’s house, spends summers at her summer house, is close with her daughter’s family, and overall has slipped comfortably into his significant other’s life. Cathy has been devastated. According to Cathy, her father’s girlfriend, let’s call her Mrs. X, has made no attempt to draw Cathy and her nuclear family into this extended, blended family. Instead of her traditional family holiday celebrations, the whole new family is included in holiday traditions that they would not normally celebrate, since they are not all the same religion. For Cathy, this has created a lot of resentment towards her father. Doesn’t he see what’s happening? Doesn’t he see that she’s left out. Why doesn’t he stick up for her? She and her father had some awful blowout fights and can hardly say a civil word to each other. The tension has gone so far as to effect Cathy’s brother and his family. Last year, I suggested to Cathy that she consider mediation so they can learn to listen and speak to one another  and come out with a plan to go forward. Instead, she convinced her father to try therapy with her, and each committed to two months. Her father didn’t make it past the fourth session.

Last week I sat down to ask her why she didn’t chose mediation. Interestingly enough, her answers were based on a misunderstanding of mediation and the process. Where as a friend did I go wrong?? I think we both made assumptions without ever clarifying the options. She went to therapy because she needed to get some of the old hurts and pain her father had caused dealt with and discussed, even though he has alway opposed doing that. Her therapist thought that this could work for them. It didn’t. Her father didn’t believe in therapy to begin with. Her father has a stereotypical view of therapy and who needs therapy and it doesn’t include him. This was not a realistic method for him to resolve any problems. His biases were already in place. She didn’t go to mediation because she didn’t think she would have the opportunity to communicate her pain and hurt he has caused her.

Now I explained the mediation process. How we interview each of them beforehand to find out their perception of the issues and then schedule one open-ended session where the issues are discussed in a non-confrontational way and hopefully, agreements are reached and the parties are able to talk to one another after they leave. Emotions come out, and there is room for it in the process, but we, as mediators, are going to keep the parties talking and focused on the issues they have identified. Cathy had an immediate problem: she and her father were losing their relationship. We insure the parties speak and listen to one another, and actually hear one another. Mediation is a problem oriented process.  It helps people resolve their conflicts, focusing on the problem at hand, and gives the parties a means to move ahead. Cathy would have been able to communicate her emotions and hurt, but in the end she and her father would have learned how to talk and listen effectively , be considerate of each other, and avoid ‘pushing each other’s buttons’.

Without asking, Cathy said, “we should have gone to mediation.” So, what were the selling points that indicated this was the better route? A la Letterman, let’s start with:

  • Number 4. Her father would have been more open to a process that wasn’t a therapeutic framework. Given his original biases, he was less likely to function well in that context.
  • Number 3: Although it was important for her to have her father hear her hurt and what the issues were for them, it would have taken them far longer than the time allotted, and possible, for them to really get into and resolve the roots of some of their problems.
  • Number 2 is the realization that she would have gotten skills that she could use when future problems arose. Her pain and emotions would be part of the session but the emphasis would have been on how they could go forward, which was the immediate problem for her.
  • And what she consider as the all important Number 1 is the ability to resolve the problems in one session. She left frustrated every time the therapy session ended and nothing was resolved. Whatever momentum they achieved, was lost when the time was up. She feels the opportunity to work through in one long session might have been a key point in helping them work through their issues productively.

Next time, I will try to be as clear with my friends as I am in my formal presentations.

Why Mediation Matters by Ruth Weinreb

I graduated law school 28 years ago and was looking forward to a career in litigation. I had taken classes in evidence, civil procedure and trial advocacy and was excited about litigating my first trial. After a short period of time, I was handling my own trials, loving it. I enjoyed the details of putting together the evidence, preparing the witnesses and sparring with my opponent. I even enjoyed writing the briefs. But after 28 years of litigation experience, 28 years of parties waiting three years for a final Order, and 28 years of parties not receiving a full remedy, I realized that mediation offered more than a viable alternative to litigation. Continue reading Why Mediation Matters by Ruth Weinreb

Parent/Teen Mediation: Why Kids Return to the Table by Gail Goodman

I enjoy mediating with teens and parents. The cases are sometimes referred by social services or probation, or sometimes a school counselor or social worker will recommend trying mediation. Initially I made the assumption that any young person coming in who has been referred by an official agency, some under the threat that this was the last chance before being taken out of the home, would come in intending to comply with the terms. This is not always the case.

After greeting the parents and teen, I explain the mediation process and the ground rules and tell them that there is a commitment to attend a one hour session for 4 consecutive weeks. The parents generally agree but the teen will usually, and sullenly, only agree to see how it goes. There are no guarantees except for the first session. Yet at the end of all those first sessions, they all agree to come back; that’s a 100% retention rate. This isn’t to say that every mediation resolved all the conflicts or necessarily ended ‘successfully’, but just having everyone return every week was something of a victory. What made them agree? What changed their attitude? Here’s what I got from some of the feedback and my observations. Continue reading Parent/Teen Mediation: Why Kids Return to the Table by Gail Goodman