When you’re making decisions about moving to a senior living community or hiring home care, it can be a challenge to get family members on the same page. After all, different people tend to have very different opinions when it comes to what’s best for a senior loved one.
With that in mind, Sharon Daily, LCSW-C, a social worker with Stella Maris home care in Maryland, offers expert tips on creating family meetings that provide a satisfying outcome for everyone.
1. Plan ahead.
First and foremost, it’s important to help your parents feel at ease with a family meeting rather than catching them off guard. To lay the groundwork, you could say something like, “I would like to sit and talk to you about your needs and how I can best support you,” suggests Daily. “Setting a time aside can help your parents feel more prepared and not feel threatened by the conversation.”
2. Read the room.
Once your parents, siblings, and any other parties are aware that a family meeting is in the works, consider the timing of the actual conversation. “Start conversations at a time when all parties are calm, if possible,” says Daily. “Conversations are not going to go as well if people are frustrated, angry, or stressed.” In other words, steer clear of meeting immediately after a difficult diagnosis, or any day that’s jam-packed with activities.
3. Begin with your parents.
Since the meeting is about your parents, it makes sense for them to play a key role in the conversation, if they are able. “Start by encouraging your parents to talk about what’s important to them at this time in their lives,” says Daily. “Let them express their wishes, goals, and thoughts on what they want—even if what they want is different than what you think should happen.”
4. Consider family dynamics.
In the spirit of peaceful communication, decide in advance who will be the one to broach sensitive issues. “Within our own family dynamics, we all play a different role because we all have different relationships and different ways of coping,” explains Daily. “If there is an adult child that your parents listen to more—or where the relationship is less tumultuous—then use this family member as the one to bring up difficult subjects or as the conversation starter.”
5. Ensure everyone has a voice.
Of course, that doesn’t mean one person should monopolize the family meeting. Even with a leader or facilitator in place, it’s essential that each family member has an opportunity to speak and feel heard. “If there is someone who is more quiet in the family or who is having a harder time with the process, invite them to share how they are feeling or what their concerns are,” suggests Daily. To help accomplish this goal, establish the ground rule that only one person can speak at a time.
6. Take responsibility for your own feelings.
To foster healthy communication in family meetings, Daily encourages family members to communicate with “I” statements, which focus on personal feelings and beliefs, rather than “you” statements, which shift responsibility to others. “Share with your parents that you’re concerned and could use some help with how to best understand what they’re going through,” she advises.
7. Be flexible.
Naturally, in a family filled with different personalities and different ways of thinking, there’s bound to be some level of disagreement or conflict. That’s why it’s wise to be flexible. “Don’t go into a conversation thinking you will get your way,” says Daily. “Have an open mind and listen carefully. Demonstrating to your parents that you’re willing to collaborate will help them feel supported.”
8. Meet again.
Since there’s a lot of ground to cover in senior living conversations, be prepared for multiple family meetings. “Don’t think that one family meeting is going to resolve every issue or concern—working through decisions with people we love and care about is a process,” affirms Daily. Try to end each meeting on a positive note, and be prepared to revisit the issues discussed. She recommends assigning a notetaker to make a list of any concerns as well as questions that still need to be answered.
9. Ask for help.
If you cannot come to agreement but a senior living decision must be made, you may wish to consult a professional. “Share your concerns with your parents’ physician if safety is involved,” says Daily. She also recommends calling your local agency on aging and requesting a visit from a community resource specialist to talk with your parents about their options, or connecting with a private geriatric case management service to help mediate and manage concerns.
CHIME IN: How have you used family meetings to facilitate a senior living decision?