July 1, 2009
written by Barbara Hill, Esq.
As our population ages, more adult offspring are caring for their parents. This so-called “sandwich generation” — adults caring for both their young children and their aging parents — faces enormous stress; emotional, financial and, simply, time. Although this phenomenon has been described repeatedly in the media, insufficient attention has been devoted to resolution of tensions arising from this changed dynamic. It is natural for parents to guide and take responsibility for their children; it is not as comfortable to undertake the same role with our parents. Then, too, older adults may be far less willing to give up their independence or to accept their growing frailty.
Mediation offers a unique forum to help people creatively resolve the very real and complex concerns that arise within this changing parent-child dynamic. Concerned adult children, together with their aging parents, can explore the areas of need, the opportunities for help and the resources available, all with the assistance of a trained, neutral mediator. Concrete plans can be determined and a set of guidelines can be considered to provide for the current situation, as well as providing for future changes. Ultimately, the mediation forum can provide the tools that help families resolve future concerns in a productive way.
Sometimes our aging parents face growing physical limitations. The problem may be balance, coordination, strength, or flexibility; elders can no longer tend the yard, shovel the walks or change the light bulbs. Perhaps these are the easiest problems to resolve. Local help or minor assistance from offspring (or grandchildren) living nearby might do the trick. However, even in these seemingly modest areas, there are elders who resist, or do not see the need for, assistance. Other times, the situation is reversed: aging and increasingly frail parents want or need more assistance than their offspring can comfortably provide.
Sometimes the problems are memory-related – forgetting to pay the bills, forgetting to take medications, getting lost, or, most worrisome, forgetting to turn off the stove or extinguish a lit cigarette. While these problems can also be resolved, they may pose greater generational tensions. Perhaps parents cling to their independence, or perhaps offspring do not see the growing need their parents face. At some point, the typical “senior moment” memory lapses may deteriorate into dementia or Alzheimer’s disease when the incapacitated elder cannot manage his/her own affairs. In such instances, the adult offspring may need to step in without the elder’s participation.
In some cases, there may be unmet financial needs. Parents may be reluctant to ask for financial assistance. In other situations, there may not be enough resources to meet the parents’ financial needs – or the ability to be supportive may be unequal among the adult children. Alternatively, the situation may be reversed; the older generation can no longer provide the “expected” financial assistance that their grown offspring have come to rely upon, or, for one reason or another, the parents choose to provide support to some but not all of their grown children. Understandably, these dynamics can create significant tensions within families.
Typically people of all ages avoid thinking about their own mortality. Thus, it is not surprising that these issues cause a great deal of anxiety, both for the aging parent and the younger generation. In the best of all situations, everyone recognizes that the intentions are good. But, sometimes that is not enough. Generations may not see eye-to-eye, and adult children do not always agree on what is necessary, appropriate or the right road with respect to their aging parents.
Great loss occurs when these tensions infect familial relationships – parents and children estranged, siblings estranged, grandparents losing relationships with grandchildren, and grandchildren living without ties to aunts, uncles and grandparents. These are situations for which mediation is an extremely effective option. Mediation is not about blame; it is not therapy; it is not about right and wrong. Mediation provides a neutral forum for each person to express their concerns and to understand the others’ positions, and, most important, mediation providing a forum for creative problem solving.
The most unique aspect of the mediation forum is that all parties work together to create solutions that meet their needs and respond to the concerns of their particular family, while preserving the familial relationships.