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Call a Family Meeting

Gatherings Can Be a Powerful, Healing Way to Communicate
By: by George D. Cohen, LCSW, Albany, CA

One of the most common questions asked of family therapists and social workers is, "Should we have a family meeting?" The answer is usually "Yes," because family meetings can be powerfully effective and healing for the caregivers and for the senior who is in need of help.

It is one of the best ways to clarify family issues and to reach decisions by agreement or consensus. It's also an opportunity to give everyone a chance to share their feelings and ideas, and to become involved. Most of all, it is a way to build and strengthen caregiver support systems. A good family meeting can help members come away feeling more connected, energized, and supported.

"If you are the primary caregiver, get your siblings involved right away, perhaps by holding a family meeting," says Virginia Morris, author of "How to Care for Aging Parents." "Early on, you may believe that you can handle your parent's care and that no one else can do it as well. But those reins can become very heavy, very quickly. If you don't share them now, you may find yourself stuck with them later.

"In addition to the sheer work involved, this can be a lonely undertaking. You need siblings to share the decisions, the worries, and the stress."

At one time or another most of us will be involved in some type of family meeting. Accordingly, here are some of the most common questions people ask about this topic and some general guidelines.

What topics or issues are appropriate to discuss at a family meeting?

No topic is too big or too small for this kind of gathering. Typical topics of discussion and examples might include:

  • Support. A sibling who is the primary caregiver may be feeling overwhelmed by the demands of an aging and dependent parent. She may ask for more help by dividing up the many weekly tasks.

  • Finances. A sibling has taken time off from work to attend to a frail, bedridden father. He has also laid out a lot of money to cover their father's medical bills, so he now asks others to share the financial burden.

  • Decisions. An elderly parent has recently broken a hip and may not be able to continue living independently at home. The family now needs to discuss housing options.

Some of us have anxiety about calling or attending a family meeting. Is this normal?

Feeling a bit anxious about a family meeting is perfectly normal and natural. It is not an everyday event and we may have concerns about whether we will be able to handle difficulties and whether everything will turn out all right. Also, some of us may be afraid of emotionally charged family scenes that leave everyone drained and bruised. In reality, family meetings can be caring and respectful, and a practical way to deal with a broad range of family situations.

Who should call a family meeting, and who should attend?

A meeting can be called by any family member who feels the need for greater support and clarity regarding the care of an elderly parent or relative. Often, the sibling already involved in caregiving calls the meeting and invites their siblings, relatives, and others who are close to the senior. Occasionally younger relatives, such as grandchildren who are mature and interested, are also invited to attend.

Should the senior also be invited?

This depends entirely on the family situation and the current status of the senior. If a senior is too sick, frail or emotionally distraught, and if a meeting might leave them more exhausted or confused, perhaps they should not be included. If, however, the senior is still involved in decisions involving their own care, they should attend. Their feelings, choices, and preferences are very crucial to family decisions. Also, keep in mind that plans made without the input of the senior are often difficult to carry out.

How do we prepare for a family meeting?

Families often find that meeting after having a meal together is conducive to a congenial atmosphere. Also, family meetings are not "business" meetings, but because family business and emotional matters are serious matters, a little preparation can be valuable. For example, any relevant or informative written materials such as doctor's reports or social worker's assessments should be made available to everyone ahead of time. If possible, telephone calls should be taken by an answering machine and other interruptions should be minimized.

Who should lead the meeting, and should there be an agenda?

In truth, meetings can be led by anyone involved. You do not need any special experience to qualify. Usually, however, they are led by the sibling who is already quite involved in caregiving and who feels the need to discuss a particular matter regarding the parent's current status or their own concerns.

While having an agenda may seem a bit formal, it can also be very effective. At the beginning the leader should present her own ideas or topics and then ask everyone what topics they wish to discuss. Priorities should be established upfront so that critical matters are given full attention. If time permits, other topics can then be presented. It may also help to write down important decisions, assignment of tasks, and other things to follow up on and distribute it to each participant at the end of the meeting.

How do we handle strong differences of opinion about important decisions and personality conflicts within the family?

It is usually best to let everyone express themselves regarding difficult decisions. The key is to encourage respectful listening especially where there are strong emotions or differing points of view. Also, it helps if all participants are encouraged to use "I" statements when they speak, expressing their own personal opinions, and avoid making blaming statements that begin with "you."

Additionally, no one should be allowed to dominate. When faced with challenging situations, some families invite outside experts such as a social worker, geriatric case manager, or pastor who can help moderate and also provide special knowledge or experience which can help the family gain a more objective perspective.

Final thoughts

Please remember that conducting a family meeting is an art and not a science. It takes time to develop a good communication regarding family caregiving. Practice makes perfect over time. Families should, of course, try to follow through on decisions and promises that have been agreed upon. Often a series of shorter meetings are more productive than one long meeting. Families might also benefit from talking to other families who have held successful meetings.


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