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Elder Mediation-Power Squared for Mediation: Theory Collides with Practice in Developing an Elder Mediation Project

by Virginia Marcantel

Reprinted with Permission of the American Bar Association.

The Elder Mediation, or EM-Power, Project was an ambitious effort to bring the option of alternative dispute resolution to the seniors of rural Central Pennsylvania's Union and Snyder counties. With a grant from the Partnerships in Law and Aging Program, with funding from the Albert and Elaine Borchard Center on Law and Aging and the Marie Walsh Sharpe Endowment, project partners Susquehanna Legal Services (now North Penn Legal Services) and the Union-Snyder Area Agency on Aging sought to implement an alternative dispute resolution project that replicated an established, metropolitan Philadelphia-based senior mediation service. Throughout its design and implementation phases, the project depended heavily upon the guidance and support of its two primary collaborators: the Montgomery County Mediation Center's Committee on Mediation Services for Seniors of Norristown, Pennsylvania, and the Lewisburg Area Mediation Project (LAMP) of Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

During its initial year, the EM-Power Project experienced a mixture of successes, delays, and frustrations, as well as glimpses of a bright future. To examine and interpret each of these will, it is hoped, prove beneficial to other groups that may be considering the development of a similar volunteer mediation program.

The Model

Montgomery County Mediation Center's Mediation Services for Seniors (which also received its start-up funding from the Partnerships in Law and Aging Program) had been two years in development when its Committee on Mediation Services for Seniors agreed to mentor the EM-Power Project. Key components of the Montgomery County Mediation Center's program that the EM-Power Project sought to replicate included:

  • Educating seniors and service providers about mediation and its availability;
  • Training mediators in legal, ethical, and geriatric issues, as well as referral sources;
  • Reaching out to other organizations that serve the elderly in order to share information regarding services, resources, referrals, and the development of creative ways of serving the elder population;
  • Training and utilizing senior volunteer mediators at all phases of the program design and implementation; and
  • Evaluating and adapting general mediation practices to meet the special needs of seniors. Located in the Philadelphia metropolitan region, the Montgomery County Mediation Center benefits from a large and diverse population, a wide variety of resources and services, and a relatively compact service area. In comparison, Union and Snyder counties are both vastly rural, with a small, scattered population, and considerably fewer locally-available resources and services. Nevertheless, the EM-Power Project partners were confident that the model could be successfully replicated, with few modifications, in their predominantly rural service area.


With the Montgomery County Mediation Center as a guide, the EM-Power Project partners developed the following ten objectives:

  1. Design and structure a delivery system for mediation services and education in a rural setting that replicates the Montgomery County Mediation Center's Mediation Services for Seniors;
  2. Recruit and train senior volunteers to provide mediation services for seniors living in Central Pennsylvania's Union and Snyder counties;
  3. Provide advanced training for mediators in legal, ethical, and geriatric issues, as well as referral resources appropriate for senior clients and their concerns;
  4. Involve senior volunteers at all phases of the program design, implementation, and governance;
  5. Develop innovative instructional strategies for the education of seniors, service providers, lawyers, and other relevant segments of the population, as well as for the general public, about mediation and its availability as a conflict resolution option;
  6. Form a coalition among organizations serving the aging and underserved in order to share information regarding services, resources, and referrals for the development of new and creative ways of serving the legal needs of the elder population;
  7. Develop mechanisms for screening, intake, and delivery of mediation services, and implement them as senior mediation cases are processed;
  8. Create an environment in which Montgomery County Mediation Center's Committee on Mediation Services for Seniors program can meet its goals related to the EM-Power Project;
  9. Establish a mutually beneficial working relationship with LAMP to co-mediate appropriate cases;
  10. Produce a final report that documents the project's strengths and weaknesses, plans for its continuation and expansion, and anticipates its becoming a model for other communities.

Next, staff of the EM-Power Project devised a two-phase time line. Phase I, which would begin in March 2000 and run through May 2000, was to encompass the recruitment of volunteer mediators, the preponderance of the mediation training, development of the initial community-wide educational outreach presentation, and the initial design of the administrative policies and processes. During phase II, which would begin in June 2000 and run through February 2001, the implementation of the project was to occur.

Staff included a project coordinator (a member of the Union-Snyder Area Agency on Aging) and a local lawyer, who served pro bono. Volunteer mediators would be recruited from the senior population of Union and Snyder counties to perform the major functions of the project and fulfill significant roles in the project's administration. An Advisory Committee was established, which consisted of the directors, or their designees, of the two project partners (Susquehanna Legal Services and the Union-Snyder Area Agency on Aging), and the two project collaborators (the Donald L. Heiter Community Center and the Montgomery County Mediation Center). Administration of the project's finances was the responsibility of Susquehanna Legal Services.

Development and Implementation

The staff, although quite experienced in project management and legal issues, had limited knowledge of the practice of mediation. As a result, the staff of the EM-Power Project depended heavily upon the staff and volunteer mediators of Montgomery County Mediation Center's Mediation Services for Seniors Project, their mentors, for direction and guidance.

In addition, although both mediation projects were similarly structured, there proved to be significant differences between their two situations that would drastically affect the operations of the EM-Power Project. These differences surfaced only as the project began to be implemented. The first difference was that the mentor program, Montgomery County Mediation Center, was a well-established, full-service, full-time mediation center, out of which the more specialized Mediation Services for Seniors had developed. In other words, a foundation in general mediation practice provided a solid base that could readily support a more specialized off-shoot. In comparison, for EM-Power, that established mediation foundation did not exist. The EM-Power Project attempted to build, not only the general mediation foundation and supporting network, but also the senior component-all in the span of one year.

Another issue that emerged soon after the project was initiated revolved around the problems inherent with an all-volunteer "work force." The management of schedules, and the distribution of roles and responsibilities of the volunteers proved to be more challenging than was anticipated. Project staff would have been well-served to have observed more closely the operation of project collaborator LAMP, which is also a virtually all-volunteer project. Because of the management challenges raised from working with volunteer groups, adhering to the project's time line became quite challenging.

Recruitment and Retention of Volunteer Mediators

The crucial element of phase I of EM-Power was to recruit seniors as volunteer mediators. Project staff distributed the initial recruitment information, primarily through the efforts of two district judges, local lawyers, several senior organizations, and local churches. Interested seniors were invited to attend an informational meeting in mid-March of 2000. The meeting would provide seniors with more information about the project, the effectiveness of mediation with the senior population, and the degree of commitment they would be asked to make as volunteer mediators. Ten seniors expressed a serious interest in becoming mediators, seven of whom attended the informational meeting.

Even at this early stage of the project, EM-Power staff realized that a deviation from the Montgomery County Mediation Center's model would be required. For example, several of the senior volunteers were interested in participating in the project, but not necessarily as mediators-some preferred to do only telephone intake or education/outreach rather than to conduct actual mediations. Project staff determined that such a division of responsibilities would be appropriate to EM-Power because it could accommodate the involvement of a greater number of the seniors who were interested in participating. Another difference between EM-Power and its model could be found in the sources of its volunteers. The Montgomery County Mediation Center had a stable, centralized source from which to recruit volunteers (the Philadelphia chapter of the RSVP organization). However, in the Union-Snyder region, there is no single organization with an established, focused commitment to volunteerism that could serve EM-Power as a primary source of personnel.

Another challenge to the regular and systematic involvement of senior volunteers in the EM-Power Project also became apparent at this first meeting. The type of senior citizen who has the background and skills to become a mediator is, generally, one who is retired, has many other interests and commitments, travels extensively, and may not necessarily place his or her commitment to the EM-Power Project as a priority. Although such seniors are intelligent, have a wide range of interests, value their independence, and have enthusiasm for life-all clearly to the advantage of any project-the implications of this senior volunteer profile have, to a degree, impacted adversely on the delivery of training, the scheduling of meetings, and the administration of the project.

Training and Internships

Two four-hour basic mediation training sessions were provided to potential volunteer mediators and project staff in late March 2000 by the director of LAMP and several of their trained mediators. In May, four hours of active role play in simulated mediation scenarios offered the volunteer mediators a chance to practice the skills they had learned. In addition to basic mediation principles and techniques, the LAMP trainers shared their intake and screening strategies with the EM-Power staff and volunteers.

As the different functions involved in delivering mediation services were realized by the group, it became even more apparent that some of the volunteers were interested in carrying out only selected responsibilities, e.g., to be an intake person, but not a mediator, or vice versa. A total of six volunteers attended all or part of the basic training, and, even though all of them demonstrated genuine interest in mediation as an excellent alternative dispute resolution option, some began to express doubts that they would be able to make the long-term commitment that the project required. In mid-April, a three-day planning, training, and community education and outreach event was held in Lewisburg under leadership of the Montgomery County Mediation Center's Senior Mediation Services staff. The training for EM-Power staff and volunteers, as well as for LAMP staff and volunteers, offered presentations, demonstrations, and discussions, with an accompanying training and resource manual covering geriatric issues that should be considered when one or more of the disputants in a mediation is age sixty or older.

In addition, seven local lawyers also attended and participated in a two-and-a-half-hour workshop conducted by the Montgomery County Mediation Center's trainers. This workshop explored ways in which mediators and lawyers can work together to resolve disputes involving elderly clients or clients dealing with elderly people. The informal workshop provoked a stimulating exchange among the trainers and lawyers (who also earned 2.5 Substantive Pennsylvania Continuing Legal Education credit hours).

The trainings provided by LAMP and the Montgomery County Mediation Center were informative and stimulating. However, each group revealed a very different philosophy and approach to its practice of mediation. The Montgomery County Mediation Center practiced transformative mediation and favored a more scholarly method. In comparison, LAMP took a more practical, expeditious approach to mediation. This difference became somewhat problematic to those being trained. The trainees often found themselves struggling with which of the two approaches to follow and how the two methods might be blended. Because neither the project coordinator nor the project's consulting lawyer were trained as mediators at the outset of the project, they had not anticipated the wide differences in philosophy or approach. The preferred situation would have been to have compatible training providers. However, the two different approaches conveyed to the trainees a wider perspective of the practice of mediation and provided a variety of strategies and techniques for consideration. Following the completion of the basic and the more specialized senior training in mediation, the EM-Power staff had arranged for LAMP to provide internship opportunities for the newly-trained mediators. When the appropriate time came, however, LAMP was receiving only limited referrals and requests for mediation. Consequently, the EM-Power mediators, who had completed their "classroom lessons," were impeded from completing their total training requirements for lack of internship opportunities. Again, because of the relatively isolated geographic location of Union and Snyder counties, and a lack of remaining project funds, it was not feasible for EM-Power's mediators to travel to other locations to intern.

In hindsight, the EM-Power staff realized that a more insightful plan for spending the project's training dollars would have been to offer several smaller, more varied, and less expensive training events that were spread across the duration of the funded project. That way, the volunteers' schedules would have been better accommodated, and there could have been funds available in the second phase of the project to pay for some alternate means of providing additional training options, specifically for the needed internship opportunities.

Project Administration

The administrative and operational functions of the EM-Power Project were planned according to the Montgomery County Mediation Center's model, which calls for the senior volunteers to be involved in all aspects of the project's planning and implementation. However, at its first operational meeting, the EM-Power volunteers indicated that they were not interested in developing policy, procedures, or written instruments. In addition, the volunteers also emphasized that they were not ready to take a leadership role in community outreach and education. The limits that the volunteers placed on their participation presented a real dilemma for project staff. Because of other professional commitments, the EM-Power staff were not in a position to absorb all of the responsibilities that had been proposed for the volunteers.

As a result of the reluctance of the volunteers to participate at the anticipated level, coupled with the inability of the project staff to assume the additional responsibilities, the project was significantly delayed in creating its own policies, procedures, administrative documents, and a fully-developed outreach and education plan. Another weakness in the administration and operation of EM-Power was the failure to fully utilize its Advisory Committee. Difficulties in scheduling the proposed quarterly meetings-due to geographic distance and member schedules-became problematic. The project would most certainly have benefited from the regular counsel of the advisory committee.

Community Outreach and Education

The project's community outreach and education component has, generally, been very successful. At the outset, the project coordinator and the consulting lawyer developed a design for community outreach and education that could serve reciprocally as a referral network from various elements within the community back to the project.

A highly successful community outreach event took place when the Montgomery County Mediation Center conducted its three-day training, planning, and outreach meeting in March 2000. Approximately one hundred local citizens were invited to attend the meeting, which included a simulated mediation presented by the center's trainers. The audience included two district judges, lawyers, social workers, health care providers, residents of senior housing projects, senior center managers, and staff from the Union-Snyder Area Agency on Aging. The program disseminated a wealth of information about mediation as a dispute resolution option, evoked a variety of questions from the audience, and served as an extremely effective orientation to the community regarding the advantages of mediation for the older population.

During the subsequent months, several additional outreach and education presentations were made by the EM-Power staff and a lawyer from Susquehanna Legal Services. These presentations were to specifically targeted groups within the community, including six senior centers in the two counties, a long-term care committee (advocates for seniors who reside in nursing homes and assisted living facilities), an Area Agency on Aging from neighboring Northumberland County, and several civic organizations.

The presentations were all well-received, but they elicited inquiries about fees and the immediate availability of mediation services for seniors that could not be satisfactorily answered at the time. As strong an impact as the outreach presentations had on the community, it might have been wiser to postpone them until more details of the project's implementation had been determined. For example, not all of the audience's questions (e.g., about the project's fee structure) could be answered during the presentations.

The community outreach effort was widely expanded by the positive, in-depth local press coverage it received, which raised the awareness of the broader community about mediation and the geriatric issues related to it. However, even though there were time and personnel available to provide the outreach, it may not have been prudent to stimulate so much interest and actual requests for mediation services that the project was not yet ready to provide.

Conducting Mediations

The original design and time line for the EM-Power Project called for mediation services to be available to the community by summer of 2000. However, given the stumbling blocks and delays that the project encountered, EM-Power had not progressed to the point where it was able to deliver mediation services on its own.

A New Partnership

At the end of March 2001, the EM-Power Project was significantly behind schedule. However, its administrative and managing partners and personnel were still dedicated and actively striving to maintain the focus of the project and to realize its original objectives in full. Operating without specific funding, the project sought creative and economical strategies in order to continue operation. To that end, EM-Power signed a formal partnership agreement with LAMP to jointly provide a full spectrum of mediation services to the citizens of its general service area. The partnership would also allow EM-Power to incorporate the unique attributes of senior mediation into LAMP's existing operations.

Under the guidance of designated staff from the Donald L. Heiter Community Center and the Union-Snyder Area Agency on Aging, this partnership (referred to as LAMP/EM-Power) is being administered and operated by volunteer mediators who have received both basic and senior mediation training, thus ensuring that the older adult population will continue to have senior-sensitive mediation services available. Reciprocally, the original EM-Power volunteers are receiving training in other specialized issues, such as child custody cases, so that the partnership has a wide degree of flexibility to co-mediate virtually any case that presents itself. The group meets twice monthly and frequently features continuing education and training programs for its members, as well as strategy sessions for community outreach, project development, and expanding the network and potential of the LAMP/EM-Power Project.

Recommendations for Replication

Undoubtedly, one of the greatest contributions that the EM-Power Project can offer to any group considering the development of a similar mediation program is the revelation of the problems it faced, the lessons it has learned from them, and the alternate plans it developed to maintain its presence in its immediate community and expand its reach into a larger one. These experiences, set against EM-Power's original plans, should serve as a reasonable guide for any group seeking to develop a similar program in their own community.

The most important issues to consider in replicating the EM-Power model would center around:

  1. Geographic location and availability of services and resources;
  2. Support and acceptance from the community, especially the legal establishment and the aging network;
  3. Profile of the volunteers it might recruit;
  4. Identifying, early in the planning and development stages, all other mediation projects and methods of practice within the region and establishing a working relationship with them; and
  5. Building flexibility into its management plan and time line. Working within the above-described parameters, replication of the EM-Power Project could prove productive and rewarding for any community seeking to provide its citizens with viable alternative dispute resolution options.

Virginia Marcantel is the EM-Power project coordinator.