How to hold a family meeting

When caring for an elderly parent or other relative, families need to work together. One of the best ways to make sure everyone has a chance to share ideas and support each other is to hold regular family meetings. Here are some tips for holding your own.

When should you have a family meeting?

Ideally, a family might begin to meet to discuss their thoughts and wishes around care before there is a health crisis. Everyone would have a chance to air their thoughts around caregiving – what they can offer if someone is ill, what their fears might be – without the added pressure of having to take action right away.

In the real world, most of us won’t until there is a specific reason to do so – when a test comes back with a diagnosis, or there has been some kind of incident that means decisions have to be made. In this case it’s often a good idea to set up a regular family meeting time for at least the period until the crisis has passed (and preferably beyond).

When people know another meeting will be held in a week or two, they can be more secure that any concerns they have will be addressed. This gives famly members the room to try different and creative solutions without worrying that they will be stuck with the results forever.

Make sure that family members who can’t attend are still kept in the loop via the phone or email. A speaker phone can help in including people who can’t be physically present.

Who should attend a family meeting?

Who attends the meeting will obviously be dependent on the individual family. But it is important to include everyone who will be involved in the care of the individual, which may include in-laws, close friends, and even paid caregivers.

One of the hardest decisions is whether or not to include the person who is ill. It’s important to involve that person in decisions around his or her care and that he or she has a chance to express needs and concerns. At the same time there may be things family members don’t want to say in front of him or her because they might be painful to hear. And if the ill person is suffering from memory loss or dementia it can make a meeting difficult to run. One solution is to have two meetings, or a “pre-meeting meeting.”

If a family is experiencing a lot of conflict or facing a particularly painful decision, it may be a good idea to include an outside professional such as a social worker or religious leader in the meeting to help mediate.

How to have a family meeting

It’s important to make people as comfortable as possible with the way the meeting will run. Tips for a smooth meeting include:

– Set the agenda beforehand. Designate one person to create an agenda and send it out to people in advance, but encourage everyone to give that person items for the agenda.

– Keep the meeting as focused as possible. This reduces the potential for conflict.

– Have a start time and an end time. It’s better to have several meetings than to keep going when everyone is getting tired.

– Pick a comfortable location with as few distractions as possible.

– Put it in writing. Designate someone to take notes and distribute them reasonably quickly after the meeting. There’s always a lot of information to take in, and it’s amazing how two people can hear the same thing and be left with different impressions. It’s not always important to record how each decision is made but it is important to record what the decisions are. Highlight “action items” (perhaps on a calendar) so that it is easy to see who is responsible for completing tasks, and when.

Achieving results at a family meeting

Families are complex and include a lot of history, good and bad. This can make meetings emotionally stressful and difficult. Often people tend to take on different roles: the rebel, the peacemaker, the blamer, the blamed, etc.

But everyone, regardless of his or her role, will need some of the same things in the meeting: consideration of his or her viewpoint and emotions, attention, control, and appreciation. All feelings are appropriate and need to be expressed.

The goal is to try to get everyone pointed in the same direction as much as possible and to bring people’s strengths together to care for the person who is ill. This is not the time to try to resolve past conflicts or feelings about past events. It may help to express that goal at the beginning of every meeting.

One way to do this is to focus on finding where people agree, rather than where they disagree. Try to start each response by finding something to agree on in what was last said. But when necessary, agree to disagree. There is not one right solution to most problems, even if a decision ultimately has to be made.

Ask everyone to try their best to use “I” statements and avoid the word “should.” “I’m not comfortable with the amount of information we’re getting from the doctor” is much easier to hear than “you should have asked more questions.”

Ask people not to interrupt each other, and make sure each person has a chance to speak.

Record problems as they are shared so they don’t get lost, but don’t jump to decision making too quickly. It’s important that the issues are fully explored before trying to reach a conclusion. Remind everyone that it will take more than one meeting to resolve things.

Realities to keep in mind

Be aware from the start that it’s unlikely that everything will work out to be “fair.” Those who live at a distance will have different responsibilities than those who live in the immediate area. There may be people who are not comfortable around sick people; they can help in other ways, perhaps by providing financial support or cooking meals and bringing them over. Aim to find the best workable compromises rather than to ensure everyone is doing exactly the same amount of work.

Remember that each individual family member may not get everything he or she wants or needs, but they may get a part of it. Stay open to alternative ways of handling things.

It can be difficult to receive help, not just for the person who is ill but also for the primary caregivers. Be appreciative of the ways individual family members offer help even if it isn’t what you expect.

And a final tip: the words “thank you” and “I care about you and love you” are almost impossible to say too often.