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The Power Struggle: When Children Have to Behave Like the Parent

Judy is talking to her younger brother, Tom, about their older brother. “Who does he think he is, waltzing in here at the last minute? Where’s he been while you and I have been struggling with this the past two years? We never hear from George. We’ve been making the tough decisions about mom. Now that we’re resolved that Mom has to live in Assisted Living Facility, he decides to weigh in.”

Judy and Tom have been helping their mom, Helen for some time. She stays in her home most of the time between visits with Judy or Tom. Lately, Judy or Tom visit every day and they are still fearful for her safety. They also help with paying bills and financial decisions. Lately, it seems she doesn’t understand what needs to be done.

A good friend of Judy has been guardian for her father. She told Judy they might have to pursue that for Helen. When Judy told George about that he blew up. “No way are you going to drag my mother into court and embarrass her and then lock her up in some institution!” He said he’d travel down from Seattle as soon as he could.

George, Judy and Tom face an increasingly frequent challenge; children forced into a role they are ill prepared for. They have no training, no experience, and no support network. They last time they worked on a project together was making sand castles at the beach and it didn’t go very well then.

So, what do they do? One recourse is to engage an attorney to assist them with making the plans for Helen and perhaps guardianship. Given they already have strong differences, they may each end up with an attorney. That might lead to a bitter, expensive contested guardianship decision.

There is an alternative. They could negotiate and agree on an approach. That won’t make Helen better, but it might spare them all additional pain and expense. But how do they tackle the difficult decisions facing them? The growing field of Elder Mediation is designed for just this challenge.

A mediator is a trained and experienced neutral party. The mediator’s job is to create an environment where the parties can arrive at an agreement all can live with. Elder mediators are specifically trained and practiced in the unique challenges of multi-party conflicts, generation role reversal, and alleged or factual incapacity.

In this case, the family may still need the assistance of other professionals to get the best possible outcome. Even if a guardianship ultimately is necessary, their agreement about how money should be handled, where Helen is going to live and who is going to be her guardian will leave everyone better off. In particular, Helen will be better off if she is spared the spectacle and expense of her children fighting.

To find an elder mediator, see the listings at the Florida Academy of Professional Mediators at

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The Power Struggle Article
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