Chances are that if you’re reading this article, you’ve experienced some sort of conflict with your siblings in the past, and you’re looking to avoid it in the future with some tough decisions about the care of your aging parent around the corner.
When it comes to making care decisions for a parent, family members should all be on the same page. But as you may have already experienced a few times in your life – this is usually easier said than done. Even the closest of families experience periodic conflicts. Having a family discussion about long-term care for a parent can be a particularly difficult if one sibling has been primarily responsible for caregiving for an aging parent, and other siblings haven’t had first-hand experience with the significant health changes a parent is experiencing.
Why Hold a Family Meeting?
Family disagreements, especially in stressful situations, are common. So, knowing when to hold a family meeting is key. Conflict often arises from one or more family members not feeling that their opinion is valued or important.
Some common reasons families might plan a family meeting include:
- Getting the latest report from your parent’s doctor
- Hearing from your parent about what they want and need
- Sharing feelings about their illness and caregiving
- Discussing daily caregiving needs and ways each person can help
- Figuring out family finances and what financial help might be available
- Determining who will make decisions and how they will be made
- Spelling out what support roles each person wants to play
- Identifying ways to support the primary caregiver
- Problem-solving tasks that need doing
Every family dynamic is different, so different meetings might be held with different family members depending on their role in making or providing input for the decision your family is discussing.
Holding a family meeting gives everyone a chance to be heard and to get everyone on the same page. That way you’re able to plan ahead in support of your parent, and your family can have confidence knowing your loved one will always be taken care of.
What Challenges Might Pop Up?
Now if only it were that easy. The truth is many problems can crop up among adult siblings and their older parents: Who is in charge of making decisions about money? Why is one family member doing all the hard work? Is Dad showing signs of memory loss? Should Mom stop driving?
Usually, conflict isn’t because your brother doesn’t care or your sister thinks you should be able to handle caregiving on your own. Conflict can stem from past disagreements or clashing personalities. Couple that with heightened emotions due to seeing a parent unable to do the things they once were capable of doing on their own makes it hard on everyone.
Here’s a look at some of the potential conflicts that can prevent you from having a productive family meeting.
Geography might prevent you from physically having everyone in the same room, but it shouldn’t prevent your family, including out-of-state siblings, from getting on the same page. There are many technologies that enable everyone to be a part of the discussion, even if they cannot be there physically. Use video conferencing services, like Skype, to allow you to read body language and facial expressions. A phone conference or multiple individual phone calls with siblings won’t have the same affect.
2. Incorrect Assumptions
Just because your sister was the irresponsible one in high school, or your brother struggled financially in his early 20’s doesn’t mean that the traditional roles they played when they were younger are grounds for taking away decision-making input as older adults. Assuming others in the family aren’t as capable as you when making decisions for a parent is sure to create some serious conflict. Keep in mind that your parent might have some valuable feedback here when it comes to who and how they want decisions made if you are finding it difficult to make decisions together.
3. Differing Ideas of Care Needs
Siblings often clash over what kind of care is best, how to pay for care, and who will perform the care. If an out-of-town brother only sees Mom once or twice a year, he might not see her the same as the sibling who is there on a day-to-day basis. Clarifications from your parent’s doctor can prove useful when discussing the changes a parent has undergone physically or mentally.
4. Unequal Caregiving Responsibilities
It is easy for families to fall into common traps, assuming, for example, that one sibling will become Dad’s caregiver because she has a background in health care or lives nearby, or that your brother will manage dad’s finances because he is a financial advisor. While they may have valuable input, they may not want the responsibility of managing those activities on their own. Some family members might not wish to be a part of discussing the financial aspects of long-term care, while others might not have much input when it comes to care. Regardless, clearly defined roles and responsibilities for all siblings involved will help prevent conflict.
5. A Resistant Parent
In some cases, family conflict can stem primarily from how your parent is handling things. Maybe Mom is telling each child a different version of the same story about her week, which can cause conflict and confusion among siblings. Or, withholding information from some children and being transparent with others after a doctor appointment. It’s helpful to remember that as difficult as this is for you, it’s much harder for your parent. Try stepping into your parent’s shoes and understanding how they might be feeling. Be open to hearing what other siblings have heard, and then work together to decipher and digest all of the information.
How to Navigate a Family Meeting
So, where do you begin? Even though it might not seem necessary, create an agenda prior to the meeting to ensure everyone is prepared to discuss the topics you’ll be covering. Sharing this in advance of the meeting will allow everyone to gather their thoughts and prevents family members from being caught off guard.
If you know there is already tension among family members, consider setting some ground rules such as:
- No name-calling, swearing, or shouting.
- Stick to the agenda.
- Agree to avoid bringing up the past.
- Encourage everyone to use I-statements and to say “I need” instead of “You should.”
- Avoid placing blame or making generalizations such as “You always” or “You never.”
- Listen to the person who is talking. No interrupting.
- If things get too hot to handle, anyone can call for a break.
- Make decisions by consensus by incorporating the major needs and wants of all.
At the end of the meeting, summarize the highlights of the discussion, including next steps and who is doing what. If needed, set a date for the next meeting. You also might want to consider wrapping up the family meeting with something that lightens the mood that your family enjoys doing together. Make a bowl of popcorn and throw on some old family videos, or play a board game everyone likes.
Clearly defined roles, open communication, transparent (but respectful conversations) and having clear next steps in place are key to a successful family meeting. By taking steps to foster positive communication and support one another as much as possible, the challenging role of making care decisions for your aging parent can leave a family feeling stronger than ever, rather at odds with each other.
For more tips, download our eBook How to Manage Challenging Family Dynamics When Making Long-Term Care Decisions.