WHEN A PARENT or relative is getting older, the impact on the family unit as a whole can become a source of stress and deep emotional distress.
Conflicts do arise, but Frances Stephenson and Brian O'Neill of Later Life Mediation say that there is no need for them to cause any more harm within the family. 'Some people end up dreading Christmas, for example,' said Frances.
Decisions about living arrangements, organising support and care at home, as well as making decisions following a diagnosis of dementia or even handling contentious issues within nursing home care are all things the children of an elderly parent may have to face.
Other families worry about what will happen to the disabled child of ageing parents.
'It might not even be a particular disagreement,' explained Newcastle woman Frances. ' They my not be used to having to have certain conversations.'
In one particular case the adult son of an ageing father failed to see how his dad could even be a part of the discussion. The voice of the older person, she said, is paramount, as well as those of every sibling or relative involved in the situation.
'A person with Alzheimer's might not recall an argument,' added Brian. ' But there is a sadness left with them afterwards and they might not even realise why.'
In the case of a recent diagnosis, the children might be in shock and simply need some guidance on where to go and what to do next.
Frances and Brian are part of a group of five mediators who specialise in elder mediation, who work nationwide.
The process is very popular in Canada but has not yet made an impact in Ireland. ' We dealt with a step-family,' they recalled. The father was in his late 70s and had remarried so had two sets of children - one older and one still in their teens.
The difficulty was that the older children did not see that their younger half-siblings had a say in where he would go. With mediation, they managed to come together and come to an agreement.
'We enable the family to come up with their own solution,' said Frances. 'We facilitate, we don't advise.'
They ask the right questions but get the family members themselves to tell their own story, in what could take just one session or a series over time. The very fact of having an "outsider" in the room can help keep tensions low.
'People may not have had the opportunity to have their say, with snatched conversations here and there,' explained Brian, adding that their code of ethics says that there must be equality in the room.
The mediator will talk to every person beforehand so that they feel comfortable when it comes to the group situation.
'We also reassure them that anything said will be confidential, and they can stop the process at any stage.'
While it can be an emotionally charged process for the mediators themselves, they find that knowing they can help makes for a very rewarding job.
Frances described being approached by a lady with two grown daughters who were not talking. Their mother was distressed and therefore her health was deteriorating.
She added that even adults in their 40s or older can revert to their teenage or childhood role within a family. The ' baby' may always be treated as the baby, even with her own children, or even grandchildren.
Similarly, the primary carer can run out of steam when looking after their mother or father, and feel too proud to ask for help. The others might not realise that he or she needs their help.
'If nothing is done, it's that kind of thing that leads to crisis,' said Frances.
'People reaching their later years realise that life is to precious to waste having arguments,' she added.
'We saw a need and that there was something we could do to help and bring peace to people.'
Brian said that often difficulties or disputes of this nature are entirely preventable.
After mediation, those involved will usually come to some form of agreement which they will receive in written format.
'It's fantastic when a resolution is reached,' said both Brian and Frances.