Mediation can help tame difficult family issues


‘Tis the season for gathering with family and friends, exchanging gifts, attending concerts and worship services, and sitting down together for a big holiday meal, but as you pack the car to go off Island or prepare your home to receive extended family, your anticipation is mixed with apprehension.

You’ve got to bring it up, but you don’t know how, and you’re dreading what’s going to happen when you do.

What’s “it”?

It could be anything. Maybe your 90-year-old dad has had two fender-benders in recent months. You think it’s time for him to stop driving, but you know he’s going to hate the idea.

Or perhaps the sibling who looked after grandma in her last year is still living in her house. The house now belongs to all three of you. Now what?

Or perhaps your aging parents are struggling to keep up the home you and your siblings grew up in. Would they be happier in a Woodside Village apartment?

Or perhaps Mama has been complaining incessantly about her next-door neighbor in the group living situation she moved into last spring. Is there anything you can do to help her out?

Such matters are hard to bring up, but if they aren’t addressed, the situation may deteriorate. Relationships fray. Family members stop speaking to each other.

Here is where a facilitator can be indispensable. Facilitators are neutral third parties who have been trained in mediation techniques. They help focus the discussion and keep everyone on track. They ensure that all participants are heard. When a party can’t be present for health or other reasons, they make sure that person’s interests are represented at the table. Facilitators trained in elder affairs are familiar both with the issues facing adult families and with the community resources available to them.

One service offered by the Martha’s Vineyard Mediation Program (MVMP) is facilitation for family meetings. The elder population on Martha’s Vineyard is growing. Studies suggest that as much as 80 percent of elder care is provided by families, not institutions. Accordingly, the MVMP has designated elder affairs a priority for the coming year.

In mid-November, 11 Vineyard mediators and elder care providers attended an all day workshop run by Elder Decisions© of Norwood. The trainers, authors of the book “Mom Always Liked You Best: A Guide for Resolving Family Feuds, Inheritance Battles and Eldercare Crises,” emphasized that elder affairs involve more than elders. Adult family members are very much part of the picture. These may include former spouses, half siblings, and others who either don’t know each other well or haven’t spoken in years. They have different expectations, needs, and resources, all of which must be taken into account.

Where the disposition of property and other family assets is concerned, these differences can lead to serious conflict. As the authors of Mom Always Liked You Best note, “these dilemmas account for some of the most vicious family feuds and court battles in our society.” With the help of trained facilitators, families can work together to identify and solve potential problems, thus avoiding future bitterness and litigation. The best time to do this is before declining health or depleted finances precipitate a crisis.

With facilitation, a meeting dreaded by all can become an opportunity to solve problems, resolve disputes, and improve relationships among family members.

“It was amazing,” said one MVMP client. “We were able to vent, have our feelings validated, and then get reinforcement on the topics we needed to discuss and make decisions on.”

Led by the Dukes County Health Council and its Healthy Aging committee, Martha’s Vineyard is mobilizing to better serve its aging population. Its priorities include health care, transportation, and housing. They also include helping families and caregivers deal with the challenges that can come with aging. As part of this effort, the Martha’s Vineyard Mediation Program offers facilitation services to help Vineyard families work through these issues and emerge with solutions acceptable to all parties.

Pete Meleney and Susanna Sturgis are mediators with Martha’s Vineyard Mediation Program Inc. Reach MVMP at 508-693-2999 or by email at