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Aging in Iowa: Mediation program aims to assist Iowa families with difficult aging issues

Helping to plan ahead for the next steps

Annie Tucker is a mediator with an office in Coralville who assists parties in resolving disputes. Photographed on Monday, November 10, 2014. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette-KCRG-TV9 TV9)
Annie Tucker is a mediator with an office in Coralville who assists parties in resolving disputes. Photographed on Monday, November 10, 2014. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette-KCRG-TV9 TV9)
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IOWA CITY — Mom is growing older. Up to this point, she’s been driving by herself, but she is getting to the age when some family members are concerned about her safety.

“It’s one of the big decisions that need to be made,” Iowa City-based mediator Laura Melton Tucker said. “When do (family members) put our foot down with mom and tell her we just aren’t comfortable with her driving anymore?”

Mom, who at first was concerned about giving up her mobility and control, quickly found herself touched by the genuine concern her children had to keep her safe.

It’s a real scenario that Tucker said she’s seen clients work through during mediation sessions.

Aging officials and mediators said many families often find themselves at odds when discussing how to best care for an aging family member. The Iowa Department on Aging has collaborated with the Iowa Association of Mediators to promote elder mediation as an option for families to find solutions in a variety of aging-related decisions — from end-of-life care to a parent’s independent living situation.

The department’s Iowa Aging Issues Mediation project is aimed at training Area Agencies on Aging staff and independent mediators across Iowa in elder mediation.

“The department saw this as a way to have possible intervention in cases where individuals need services, and everyone is not quite sure what the next right step is for the family member,” said Linda Hildreth, state elder abuse program director at the Iowa Department on Aging.

Ingrid Wensel, executive director of the Heritage Area Agency on Aging in Cedar Rapids, believes elder mediation will grow in demand as the state’s older population increases. Fifteen percent of Iowa’s population is 65 and older.

Despite the support for elder mediation, many advocates said not a lot of people know about this form of conflict resolution. Coralville-based mediator Annie Tucker (unrelated to Laura Tucker) became a certified elder mediator after a weeklong course this summer but hasn’t facilitated any elder mediation sessions since then.

“Although some children learn ‘peer mediation’ in their elementary schools and get used to talking it out, most people still don’t know how mediation works,” said Tucker, who has conducted small claims and family mediation for 20 years.

“Mediation can be very helpful when communication has gotten difficult or has completely broken down, but people usually can’t imagine talking with each other at that point. They feel stuck.”

Finding a Resolution

Mediation is a form of conflict resolution. Participants with opposing viewpoints and from a range of parties, including family members, an elderly individual and caregivers, sit down to talk about an unresolved issue. The mediator is a neutral party who facilitates discussion among the group to reach a mutual agreement — one that’s not legally binding.

Tucker, based in Coralville, said mediation is a good option for families when relationship history can inhibit discussion.

“Maybe they haven’t talked in years or they hang up on each other or only do texts because communication doesn’t work,” Tucker said. “They’re able to have a useful conversation for the first time in a while (during mediation).”

Mediation isn’t a new concept and are a variety of mediation specialties including family, divorce, and child welfare mediation. Mediation is often court ordered by judges during a dispute but can be used voluntarily outside of a legal setting.

Mediators such as Kristen Hall, vice president of the Iowa Association of Mediators, said settling a dispute in mediation also can be cost-effective compared to settling it through the court system.

Hall said mediations typically occur during crucial periods when decisions need to be made quickly during the “crisis stage.”

“That’s why we developed the program and are doing a lot of education to talk about it because it can come ... sooner,” Hall said.

Training

Several trainings have been held over the past year, most recently in July, for Area Agency staff and independent mediators. The trainings involved different types of educational sessions, including a weeklong certification course, which Tucker and more than 90 others attended.

There are no national or state certification standards for elder mediation, but Hall said being certified is important.

“Specialization in a particular area allows the mediator to help the family identify issues they may not have thought of yet,” she said.

Joel Olah, Aging Resources of Central Iowa executive director, is a part of the effort to ensure there are elder mediators throughout the state’s six area aging agencies.

He added that there are plans to introduce the program at a national conference in the coming year, including a conference next summer for the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging.

“Other states are watching to see how this plays out,” Hall said.

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