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How To Keep Family Fights About Aging Parents From Escalating

Perhaps you are part of a family that includes siblings in conflict. Maybe there are some in your family who have been estranged for a long time. These issues may have existed unchanged for years until their aging parents’ situation reaches a crisis point. Rather quickly, siblings or others are forced to communicate about what to do. This is not at all uncommon in our work at Family fights can get very ugly. Unchecked, they can escalate into lawsuits, family member against family member.

The Cost Of Doing Nothing

This is a warning to all who are in such situations: get some help, clean it up now and avoid a potential, expensive, heart wrenching battle looming ahead. How can anyone do this when you have self-righteous, stubborn, irrational players in your family? Often, these conflicts arise from a need to control by one or the other family member. That person tries to force their will on the others, who resist, get angry and sometimes fight back. Is there any way to get through the mess, and ensure that aging parents, the center of the need for action, are properly cared for? We say “yes”.

The Value of Neutral Outsiders

Many are embarrassed to reveal to anyone outside the family how bad things have gotten between family members. They want to keep it to themselves, but in doing that, they are truly suffering. They may think that their family dispute is unique. They may want to make wrong the one(s) who seem so difficult. No one has an objective view of what is going on. Only a neutral person can have that objective viewpoint, as that individual has no skin in the game. Who could this neutral person be? A skilled and trained family mediator can serve in that role.

When we think of mediation, we sometimes have in mind a union strike, a government dispute, or a fight in midst of divorce over money or custody. There is more to mediation than that. Mediation can resolve disputes in families as well.

What Is Family Mediation?

This is a completely voluntary, informal process, apart from any court, aimed at resolving disputes among family members. Lawyers need not be involved at all. It is an effective way to establish “rules of engagement”, make joint decisions about such matters as care of aging loved ones, and have a written document to memorialize the outcome of any meeting for mediation.

The Process

We at offer mediation services and have 15 years of experience in seeing what families do and don’t do in mediation. The process often starts with a call from one person who takes leadership, asking for help with a distressing family fight. After we determine whether the matter is suitable for mediation, we ask the caller whether they think the others involved in their described conflict would be willing to go to a meeting to attempt resolution. They find out. When the answer is “yes”, we have everyone sign an agreement to participate in mediation. We lay out the process, the rules and what to expect in a meeting. We have a brief, confidential call with every participant to hear their view of the dispute and how they thing it can be resolved.

We then choose a date and set the first meeting. Some disputes take more than one meeting to get things settled.

A most important point is that we, as outside mediators remain neutral. We don’t take sides, make any decisions for anyone nor tell the participants what to do. We do offer information, as experts in the healthcare and legal problems elders face. We invite those involved to try to see things from the others’ point of view. We make suggestions. We take notes. We offer possible alternatives to the place everyone seems to be stuck, so they may get past it if they choose to.

The Outcomes

Most mediations of this kind are successful. Participants are advised that this is not family therapy. Removing their years’ long resentments toward each other may never occur. But it is entirely possible that in verbally airing their views, they can make some agreements. Some examples are these, from real cases.

  1. Three siblings who distrusted one another around Dad’s money agreed to hire a neutral, licensed fiduciary to handle all of his finances.
  2. Two siblings who truly disliked each other agreed that a difficult brother could continue to visit their impaired Mom with strict requirements about his visitation.
  3. Two siblings who shared financial control over their parent’s assets resolved their dispute when one agreed to resign, as she was simply not competent to do the job anymore.


Here is a video we created for the American Bar Association some time ago, to educate the public about what elder mediation can do.

Happening Currently

In a recent case we mediated, two brothers, both with a lot of assets, had filed lawsuits against each other over who had the right to take care of their mom. Expensive lawyers for both were charging a lot to keep the fight going. Eventually, at mediation, they did choose an independent, licensed fiduciary to manage their mom’s money. The mom had dementia, but was still quite capable of saying where she wanted to live and with whom. Mediation allowed her to have a voice and get what she wanted.

Who Makes A Good Family Mediator?

Many retired judges and lawyers take up mediation practice and market their services in dispute resolution. Family mediation is quite different from the usual substance of business lawsuits or other common legal disputes that these retired judges and lawyers mediate. When it’s about elders, the mediator must understand the healthcare issues, family dynamics and things like dementia. These specifics are not part of legal education. If you and your family are considering resolving a family fight and you want mediation, choose the neutral mediator carefully. Look for a mediator’s actual knowledge of your family’s kinds of issues and go from there.

The Takeaways

Mediation is always worth a try when all the parties to a dispute are willing to go. Successful mediation typically involves compromise on everyone’s part. Mediation is always less costly in dollars and stress levels than lawsuits will ever be.

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