When taking care of an elderly parent or another relative, family members often need to work cooperatively. The more people participating in care, the less alone a caregiver feels in his/her role. Books and articles about caregiving often mention the family meeting as a way to facilitate this process. But how does one go about having such a meeting?
Who Should Attend?
Each family is different. In some families, only a husband/wife and their children are considered “family.” In other families, aunts, uncles, cousins, current and ex-in laws and close friends may be included in the definition of family. When planning a family meeting, it is important to include everyone who is or will be part of the caregiving team, and this may include a family friend, neighbor or paid caregiver.
It is also sometimes helpful to engage the help of an outside facilitator, such as a social worker or minister to help the family communicate about difficult subjects during the meeting. (This is discussed in more detail below.)
A decision must also be made about whether or not to include the ill family member in the meeting. Family members usually do not want to be excluded from family events and their preferences for care must be considered. However, if someone has dementia or another condition where he/she might misunderstand the purpose of the meeting, it might be appropriate to hold at least the first meeting without him/her present. Also, other family members may need to share with each other thoughts or feelings that would be painful for the ill person to hear. Consider holding one meeting to focus on those matters, and holding a second meeting with the ill person present.
How Should We Begin?
Communication is the key to working successfully with a group of people. If it's difficult for some family members to travel to the location of the meeting, technology can help: a conference call or the use of a speaker phone can make it easier for them to participate. A videotape or an audiotape of the meeting can also be sent out to all family members who are unable to attend. With the use of email, even those who are not nearby can also be kept up to date on how things are going.
Prior to a meeting, you'll find it helpful to prepare an agenda. Someone in the family will generally introduce the idea of a meeting and arrange the date and location. That person can also create an agenda for the meeting and send it out to all the family members ahead of time. Family members can then share their ideas and suggest other items to include.
An agenda might include topics such as:
- The latest report from the physician
- Sharing of feelings about the illness/caregiving
- About death and dying
- About being overwhelmed
- About what will happen to family members after the death
Sadness, confusion, anger, guilt, shame
What does the person who is ill want and need?
- Daily caregiving needs:
Should the sick person move in with us?
Does she/he need to be in an assisted living facility or nursing home?
How much time does each family member have to visit?
Other ways each person can help? What other help might be available?
- Financial concerns in caregiving:
How much will it cost?
How much work can family members afford to miss?
What financial help might be available from outside?
- Who will make decisions (e.g., financial, medical, hiring a caregiver, etc.) and how will they be made?
- What support role does each person want to play?
- What sort of support does the primary caregiver need?
Need for respite (a break from caregiving)
Help with meals, shopping, cleaning, laundry, etc.
Emotional support by telephone or email
Help with chores—i.e., taking the care recipient to doctor's appointments
- How will the caregiving and support needs change as the illness progresses?
- Problem Solving
List of tasks that need doing
- Summary of meeting and schedule for next meeting
Written summary of what each person has agreed to
Email or telephone tree for regular updates
It will probably be difficult to cover all these issues in one meeting, so additional meetings will be helpful. Each ensuing meeting should have a clear time table and a definite beginning and ending time. Be sure to stick to the time table; if meetings get to be too long, fatigue sets in, minds will wander, and people may resist coming to future meetings.
As with all high-level negotiations, deciding where to hold the meeting is as potentially controversial as the meeting itself. Whether you hold it in an office, a restaurant or someone's home, keep in mind that you want a setting that the majority of the participants will find comfortable and convenient and that presents as few distractions as possible (e.g. noise, small children who need attention, etc.).
From the Family Caregiver Alliance. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. Third-party usage restricted. www.caregiver.org. 800-445-8106.