Lauri Scharf, LSW, MSHS, is a Care Consultant & Master Trainer at Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging
Life is more complex than any family drama from the golden age of television may have had us believe. When mom, dad and the kids faced a sticky problem, they generally had it neatly resolved within the running time of that week’s episode—and pass the mashed potatoes.
Actual family dynamics tend to make problem-solving far dicier. When the real-life issue is an older parent who needs care, it can be especially difficult to reach a consensus of all involved. Maybe the bulk of the caregiving has fallen to the oldest daughter who has very specific ideas on the way forward but can’t seem to bring her siblings on board. The middle child always seems to be too busy with kids and a job to pitch in or come up with solutions. The “golden child” just talked to Dad, who said everything was fine and not to worry. Resentments are starting to boil over and any possible plan seems to have stalled at idle. Someone reluctantly proposes a family meeting. Now what?
Unwelcome as they may be, family meetings can be an invaluable method of working through problems and reaching good solutions. The process allows every family member to air thoughts and concerns and in doing so, to hear one another out. Holding a focused conversation in the service of a parent who needs attention can do much to clear up misinformation, and to prepare the best possible way forward. Here are some tips to plan for and carry out successful family meetings:
Preparing for the meeting
Planning ahead for a family meeting is as important as the actual meeting. First consider why it is you’re meeting. The logistics of bringing everyone together means coordinating schedules, but if the reason for the discussion is especially pressing—for example, your father is declining and your mother needs immediate assistance—then coordinating schedules, while challenging, is necessary.
If you do have to arrange a family meeting to discuss the care of a parent, it can be helpful to:
- Keep to one or two topics. Decide on the most pressing issue(s) so that everyone has a clear focus for the conversation. It’s a good idea to include these topics in the meeting invitation you send to your family members.
- Time and place. Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other platforms can make it easier to gather individuals who live far apart. Choose a date and time that works for most of the participants.
- Decide beforehand which family members will be asked to provide input and which of them will have a deciding voice. (For example, you might want all adult children and their significant others to participate in the meeting, but only the adults in the nuclear family to have a part in decision-making).
- Encourage participants to come armed with relevant information. Examples might include physician visit summaries, observations and financial documents.
The meeting itself
Before the meeting begins, you may want to establish some ground rules like letting participants finish talking without interruption and refraining from side discussions. If a participant introduces a topic that wasn’t on the agenda, gently remind everyone what the meeting is about. It may also help to complete discussion of the first topic before going on to the second topic.
Hold to facts rather than feelings. Your parent may want to remain in his or her own home, but safety factors, ongoing oversight or worsening physical and emotional conditions may be deemed more weighty. It’s important to have as much information as possible on your parent’s condition or illness, as well as on how to access relevant community resources. Don’t shy away from discussing how to pay for necessary services and possible resources at your disposal, like IRAs, stocks, additional assets, etc.
Remember who this meeting is about. Respect your parent’s beliefs and values when making any decisions. If at all possible, involve your parent in the discussion and decision-making process. It is easier to exclude a person rather than asking them to leave if the topic becomes upsetting. Rely on documents such as Power of Attorney for Healthcare, Power of Attorney for Financial and Living Wills that have the wishes of your loved one already in place.
After everyone has aired their thoughts and concerns, work on a plan to move forward. Try to be specific about the steps you need to take and, if it’s feasible, draw up a timeline to complete them. Rather than assigning tasks, invite family members to offer to help in the ways they choose. Keep each person’s talents and strengths in mind:
“Caroline, you’re good at gathering information. Could you please reach out to the four health care agencies we discussed to find out what our first steps should be?”
“James, you do a great job maintaining your house, Could you please do an outside inspection of Dad’s home and figure out what we need to work on to get it into shape?”
All families have their own unique issues, which impact how each individual relates to the others. This, of course, includes lifelong relationships with their parents. Remind everyone that the purpose of this meeting is to protect the well-being of your parent. It’s not about repairing old disagreements or perceived injustices. At the same time, it does provide the opportunity to redirect expectations and outcomes as a team. Communicate with “I” statements (I feel…, I need…). Even when you’re not all on the same page, look for the one truth you can agree upon.
You may also want to involve a moderator in the family meeting to maintain the focus, solicit feedback from all the family members and assist in determining how to move forward. Social workers, ministers and Care Consultants are all good options. Often, family meetings arise out of a crisis and arriving at your next steps can be of the essence. A moderator can help you figure out what you need to do right away, as well as offer ideas on further steps you might not have considered. This person may also have valuable experience to share about how to access community programs and other resources.
The nitty-gritty comes after the meeting, as each person begins to take constructive steps. The moderator can be a great asset, guiding you to work through any obstacles that arise, providing positive reinforcement and serving as a touchstone for the entire team. The good news is that once you’ve established a spirit of cooperation and collaboration, the next family meetings should be far less daunting.