The Challenges of Elder Mediation: Part II

The Challenges of Elder Mediation

Part II: Problems and Solutions

D.M.

This is Part II of a two part series of posts by D.M., a current JD student at Bond University.

As mentioned in my previous blog post, there are several challenges unique to elder mediation. A significant challenge regarding capacity that elders face is an incorrect perception by the mediator or the other party of their capacity to participate in the mediation. Such perceptions are often rooted in ageism, a physical or psychological disability (such as dementia) or cognitive defects stemming from illness or distress. As a result, an elder may feel disempowered because of their dependence on their caretaker or an underlying mental health condition.

Furthermore, if the mental health issue is known to the mediator or the other party, this may create a bias regarding the elder’s capacity or the mediator may incorrectly assess the elder’s capacity, further aggravating the power disparity.[1] An addition problem is that older adults may bargain away their rights in an attempt to preserve relationships with family members who are applying pressure or coercion to obtain access to their assets. They may also be afraid of retaliation from an abuser.[2]

The role of the mediator

Mediators face special challenges in elder mediation. For example, even though ground rules are necessary in mediation, the elderly sometimes comment that they feel constrained by them. This is a complex challenge because such ground rules may also work to reduce bullying from other parties (who may include abusers). The establishment of ground rules, however, is confined to the mediation, which only yields temporary empowerment of the elderly party.[3]

Mediators may also face challenges in managing elders’ contributions. Self-determination is nourished by allowing the parties to discuss and pursue their interests, but some forms of abuse may be tough for the elderly to articulate or confront. Another issue concerns the dilemma of whether medical documentation of the elderly should be shared with the mediator. On the one hand, it may create bias concerning the elder’s capacity. On the other hand, the mediator may need this information to ensure the elder’s self-determination.

Possible solutions

Appropriate responses to these challenges will differ from case to case, but some guidelines can be suggested.  Until proven otherwise, elder adults should be deemed to have full capacity to participate in mediation. However, where capacity is in doubt, this needs to be properly established and not simply assumed. One possible way to ameliorate this challenge is to hire a medical professional to make that determination. Another possible way is for a social worker to assess the party’s capacity, as they may have more relevant expertise than the mediator.[4]

Older adults are legally presumed to be capable of making decisions about their finances. However, due to ageism or cultural norms and stereotypes, as adults get older professionals may increasingly speak to family members about the older person’s financial issues rather than speaking to the older person directly. In such cases, it has been suggested that a professional in the relevant field (in this example, an accountant or financial advisor) be consulted.[5]

Mediator training and professional development also plays a key role. Mediators who deal regularly with elder parties should seek training in identifying and responding to issues concerning capacity and mental health. This training could help avoid the cost involved with consulting medical professionals in some cases, but it will also help the mediator identify when additional expertise or support is needed.

[1] Rebekah Doley, ‘Accommodating Common Mental Health Issues in Mediation’ (2016) 27 ADRJ 84, 85-6.

[2] Joan Braun, ‘Elder Mediation: Promising Approaches and Potential Pitfalls’ (2013) 7 Elder Law Review 1, 3, 6.

[3] Alexandra Crampton, ‘Elder Mediation in Theory and Practice: Study Results From a National Caregiver Mediation Demonstration Project’ (2003) 56 Journal of Gerontological Social Work 423, 426.

[4] Ibid 434.

[5] Braun, ‘Elder Mediation’, 6.

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