By Sara Pon – Canadian Centre for Elder Law
Joan Braun and Vivian Kerenyi will be hosting an Elder Mediation workshop during the 2019 Canadian Elder Law Conference. In this blog post, we share an interview with Joan on her research, this exciting workshop, and her insights into elder mediation.
Can you describe your workshop?
Joan: Vivian Kerenyi and I are developing a workshop on elder mediation with funding from the Law Foundation of BC. The workshop on elder mediation will be an interactive session in which we will go through some key areas where it is important to have knowledge if you are going to successfully mediate disputes involving older people. We will then do some practical hands-on training working on areas such as how you would convene an elder mediation session and how you would deal with ethical issues that would come up in that environment. The session should be interesting to both people working in the elder law field who want to know more about how to mediate disputes involving older adults, as well as mediators who have mediation skills but want to expand into resolving elder mediation conflicts.
How did you become interested in the issue of elder mediation?
Joan: Several years ago, I was the Executive Director of Seniors First BC (formerly the BC Center for Elder Advocacy and Support) where we provided legal services for adults. We had a toll-free phone line. I found a lot of the calls coming to that line were not from seniors, but from family members who were concerned about conflicts involving care of their parents who were aging. We did not provide service to family members, and there were not a lot of places to which to refer these callers. I was a mediator by profession, and I started wondering if elder mediation could be a way to effectively resolve some of these issues and deal with situations involving conflict before it escalated. I did some research and discovered elder mediation is more commonly used in other countries than in Canada. That is what initiated my interest. My passion would be to ensure quality in mediation, making sure those delivering elder mediation really understand the unique issues that come up in this area.
This work is funded by the Law Foundation of BC. Why did you think this work on elder mediation was needed?
Joan: This research will take material about elder mediation, both academic research on best practices and practice-focused material from other jurisdictions, in order to create material that is tailored to the Canadian environment and has a practical component. There has been some great research in the USA that has looked at what is required in elder mediation training, and what the key competencies are. In the United States, there are quite a few high-quality elder mediation trainers that are well recognized, but there are not that many people offering training in Canada. Since our laws are different, that training is not completely transferable here. What is needed—and what this project will do—is translate existing research on elder mediation into practice. Our work will take an additional step and examine how issues of elder abuse and capacity affect elder mediation, what are the best practices the mediator should apply, and what are the techniques the mediators should use to deal with those issues effectively in the mediation session.
The outcome of the project will be a manual with substantive material on core competencies for elder mediation as well as an outline for elder mediation. The purpose of the workshop is to focus-test some of the material, but there will be a high emphasis on the practical—how do you deal with these issues in a practice setting? For example, if you become aware that there is an ethical issue afoot, how do you proceed to deal with it in the best way? The whole session will be practice-focused and Canadian-focused.
How is elder mediation training different from other mediation programs? How can elder mediation training, in particular, enhance your skill set as a mediator?
Joan: There are some issues that are unique to elder mediation.
- It is a type of mediation that often involves a lot of people. Some mediation can be limited to two people in dispute. In some elder mediation situations, you could have the family, the extended family, the older adult, and the support people for the older adult. The mediator must figure out how to effectively determine who should be part of the session, and how to get people engaged in the mediation process.
- There may be situations of elder abuse. Certainly, mediators in every context must be cautious as there could be vulnerabilities or abuse issues, and so require training in order to appreciate how to properly screen for risk. But elder abuse can be different from other abuse situations. Being aware of how to screen for those dynamics, and how to deal with those kinds of circumstances—including determining whether the conflict is appropriate for mediation—is critical.
- In the adult population there is a higher prevalence of disabilities. The mediator would have to be aware of how to recognize and accommodate some of those disabilities, and how to make the setting comfortable and user-friendly for the older adult. To be an effective elder mediator you need more than core mediation skills.
You need a lot of knowledge to be an effective elder mediator: an understanding of the relevant laws; an understanding of the family dynamics; and an understanding issues that may go along with aging.
How could this training be useful to lawyers or other professionals who do not plan to become certified mediators?
Joan: Lawyers and other professionals who are working with older adults in any capacity will run into situations where there is conflict with external family members. Even if this professional isn’t going to do the mediation, there are two benefits to doing the training. First, if the lawyer or professional understands what elder mediation is, they can refer more effectively, and they can choose the best elder mediators. Second, they can use some of the elder mediation communication skills to diffuse conflict in a more informal way as part of their job. I am a trained mediator and I often use my skills in other settings. This training will include a skills component, so for those who are not elder mediators it is a good opportunity to get exposed to micro skills and how they might play out in resolving these types of conflict.
You bring an interesting combination of expertise to your work, being both a social worker and a lawyer. How do you think this combination of backgrounds impacts the approach you take to your work?
Joan: Because there are often family dynamics involved in mediations, the issues to deal with are not purely legal. My social work background gives me the ability to work with some of those softer skill areas that are focused on family dynamics and interpersonal dynamics. At the same time, my legal background allows me to be effective working as an elder mediator because it is important to understand what the legal framework is and identify where there is a legal issue to deal with. And elder mediation is an interesting area of mediation because it has a high content of both relational things and legal things. In regard to the elder mediation workshop, both the interpersonal aspect and the legal aspect will be included in the training. If people are coming in who are lawyers, they can increase their skills to understand some of those interpersonal dynamics and aging issues. If people are social workers, then need to develop a strong understanding of the law. I am able to hit on both of those things leveraging my background.
Are there any habits you think lawyers need to “unlearn” in order to become competent elder mediators?
Joan: In elder mediation, I think it is necessary to take quite a bit of time to find out what people’s interests are. It is not always the purely legal issues that are important. Understanding the relationships is really important. This means slowing down, asking open-ended questions, and being curious is very important.
Can you speak to the importance of those working in elder mediation receiving training on issues of capacity, vulnerability, and abuse?
Joan: Those areas are important because elder abuse can be very subtle. There can be different perpetrators, different dynamics, different types of abuse. Sometimes family conflicts are just about care. But sometimes there can be some kind of abuse going on. Take the example of a family that can’t agree on how mom should spend her money. It is pretty important to understand in that situation whether there is anyone in the family or outside that is taking advantage or trying to gain access to mom’s money who shouldn’t have access. It is important to understand if mom is completely capable in that situation, or if there are cognitive concerns. Understanding those things from both the family dynamics perspective and the legal perspective is really important.
Canadian Elder Law Conference
The Canadian Elder Law Conference, entitled Bridging the Gap: Elder Law for Everyone will be taking place from November 14-15, 2019 in Vancouver, BC. Joan and Vivian’s elder mediation workshop will be on the afternoon of the first day. You may register for the full conference or for only the mediation workshop.
There is limited space in the mediation workshop. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve your spot.
Roster mediators attending the mediation workshop may be eligible for CPD credit.