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How to Hold a Family Meeting

When an elderly parent needs help, adult children and even grandchildren may become caregivers. It’s important that everyone is on the same page. Even if your parent has been clear about their wishes for care and has advance directives in place, holding a family meeting may become necessary as your parent’s health and ability to live independently change.

A family meeting gives everyone—including your parent and their spouse or partner—the chance to discuss options, share opinions, and resolve differences. The primary caregiver, whether adult child or spouse, can get support and help. Family meetings allow you to evaluate your parent’s needs and available resources (such as time and money) and come up with a plan. Everyone can weigh in on solutions and help make tough decisions.

However, family meetings can become contentious. Family members often have different communication styles and different ideas and opinions about what needs to be done. Stressful situations can make emotions run high.

It’s important to remember your main goal: your parent’s well-being.

Here’s what to consider as you plan and hold a family meeting.

Planning a Family Meeting

When and how often?

If possible, hold the meeting before, or as soon as possible after, the need for care arises.

You may need to plan a few meetings, especially if you’re reacting to an emergency (such as a fall or serious illness). Multiple meetings over time will allow you to keep everyone up to date on your parent’s condition and will give family members time to deal with complicated emotions before devising a final plan. Holding multiple meetings can reduce the stress of feeling like you must resolve everything at once, and it gives people time to think about suggestions.

What will be discussed?

To stay on topic, identify what needs to be discussed as specifically as possible. Questions to think about:

  • What does your parent—or the primary caregiver—need help with?
  • What are the main things you need to resolve when you talk to family members?

For example, has your parent’s health declined to such an extent that he or she needs more help than your other parent can provide? Will your parent need help after coming home from the hospital? What sort of help will be needed, and what are the options?

Does help preparing meals include grocery shopping or arranging for food delivery? Does it extend to cleaning up the kitchen? Does your parent have sufficient balance and mobility to carry a plate of hot food from the microwave to the table?

Who should participate?

Consider the topics of discussion when you decide who should—and should not—attend the meeting.

  • If you’re going to talk about whether your parent should stop driving or whether it’s time for them to move and where, having them present while you hash things out may be difficult. However, it’s important to include your parent in the final discussions and decision so they feel like their wishes are being respected.
  • If you’re discussing family finances or personal matters, you may want to limit participants to immediate family.

In general, start by asking your parent, their spouse or partner, and the primary caregiver who they think should attend. Avoid excluding anyone who should be there, especially if they are part of the caregiving team (such as a home health aide). If your family struggles with communicating, you may want to invite a facilitator (such as a geriatric care manager, clergy member, or social worker) to help you stay on topic and resolve conflicts.

Where will the meeting be held?

Pick a location that’s convenient for everyone. You may want to choose a neutral place like a meeting room at a library or a facilitator’s office so that everyone feels safe in sharing thoughts and feelings. Your meeting space should be private and free from distractions.

For those who can’t be present, look into video chat or conference calling with video or screen sharing.

Preparing for a Family Meeting

The invitation

Send an invitation to all the participants, specifying the location and time.

  • Specify an end time as well as a start time. Knowing that time is limited will help you keep the meeting on track.
  • Share the link or phone number for any conference bridge lines with those who will be participating remotely.

The agenda

Prepare an agenda listing all the topics you need to discuss, based on the needs and goals of your parent and the primary caregiver.

  • List the most important topic first.
  • Keep the agenda short so you have plenty of time to talk about each issue and discuss next steps.

Send the agenda before the meeting so everyone knows what topics you’ll be discussing. If people suggest topics that don’t fit with your agenda, plan to discuss them in future meetings.

Research

Collect as much information as you can that’s relevant to the agenda.

  • Doctor visit summaries, particularly over time, to show changes in your parent’s condition
  • Photographs of your parent’s home to show if they are having trouble with maintaining it
  • Financial records, so you know what your parents can afford and, if their wishes exceed their resources, whether you and your siblings will have to contribute or your parents will have to scale back

As you do your research, try to come up with solutions you can propose, and state those solutions in terms of what you want. “I don’t want mom to move to a nursing home” is a valid statement, but it doesn’t offer solutions to choose from. “Instead of moving mom to a nursing home, I think we should hire a home health aide. Here are the reasons why I think this is a good idea.”

Holding a Family Meeting

Set the stage

  • Choose a round table or arrange chairs in a circle. This set-up makes it easier for everyone to see and hear each other and also communicates that everyone is on equal footing.
  • Start the meeting on time.

Establish rules

Depending on how many people attend, how difficult the topics are, and how emotional people are, consider setting (or reminding people of) rules, such as the following:

  • Be respectful.
  • Turn off cell phones.
  • Refrain from interrupting or having side conversations.

Agree on roles

  • Who will take notes (about decisions, who’s doing what tasks, following up)?
  • Will the same person lead every meeting, or will you take turns?
  • Who will share information with the medical team and extended family?
  • What information will be shared? Be clear about what is confidential.
  • Who gets to make decisions?
    • If your parent is mentally competent, recognize that they have the final say. Otherwise, their spouse, health care agent, or other legally designated person has authority.
    • Consider appointing “experts” in the family with final decision-making responsibility on specific aspects of care.

Give everyone the chance to speak. If your parent is at the meeting, let them speak first—they are, after all, the reason for the meeting. Remember that they have the right to make their own choices, even if you disagree—unless there are safety issues or if they are cognitively impaired.

Create a plan

  • Make sure the plan is realistic, and allow for changes if it turns out to be unfeasible or your parent’s health deteriorates.
  • Include what needs to be done, who will do what, and what the backup plans and contingencies are.
  • Take into account resources—time, finances—and your parent’s and family’s values and priorities.
  • Recognize that you may need more information or more time before you can solve a problem or create a plan. People may need to come to terms with the situation before they can talk about it.

Follow up

  • Make sure responsibilities are divided as evenly as possible and that the next steps are clear.
  • Summarize discussions, making sure that everyone understands and agrees.
  • Set up a way to stay in touch—a private group on Facebook, a group email, phone or video calls, or a service such as CaringBridge.
  • Set up your next meeting.

Tips for Success

  • Focus on your common goal: your parent’s well-being. Remember that it isn’t about any of you.
  • Create a safe space. If everyone can say what they feel or think without being judged, it will help to resolve conflicts and may help you find better solutions.
  • Tension, guilt, and exhaustion can get in the way of clear communication. All of you may be scared and worried, but you may express those feelings in different ways.
  • Focus on coming up with solutions. “Mom needs more help than one person can manage—let’s hear ideas for solving this problem.”
  • Avoid making promises you can’t keep. A time may come when your parent will be safer and better cared for at a nursing home than in their own home or the home of a relative.