Caring for an aging loved one is a group effort — or at least it should be.
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. Not discussing caregiving needs and responsibilities is a common cause of family conflict.
The best way to work cooperatively as a family is to hold regular family meetings. Here is how:
Initiate Meetings Sooner Rather Than Later
As soon as your parent begins to have health problems or struggle with activities of daily living, initiate regular family meetings with your parent, siblings, and any other members of the caregiving team, which may include a family friend, neighbor, or paid caregiver. If someone lives out of town, Skype them in.
“Planning ahead makes such a huge difference,” says Robyn Grant, Director of Public Policy and Advocacy at National Consumer Voice for Long-Term Care, which advocates for quality care and services in any long-term care setting. “Even if you’re in a situation where your mother is doing great, have conversations now about what to do when things start to get a little harder.”
Include Your Loved One
The goal of the family meeting is to get everyone on the same team in support of the elder, regarding their care and quality of life — so involve your loved one as much as possible in the meeting. “Keeping the focus on the elder really helps,” Grant says.
Create an Agenda
No one wants to sit in a meeting where participants are unprepared, people veer off-track, and the topics discussed are a waste of the team’s time. An effective agenda sets clear expectations for what needs to occur before and during a meeting.
Whether there are specific problems to solve, information to share, or thoughts to air, work with all family members ahead of time to create an agenda for the meeting. An agenda might include discussions about:
- The parent’s wants and needs
- Who will make decisions
- What each person can contribute
- What support the primary caregiver needs
- Tasks that need to be done
Watch Your Language
Encourage everyone to use I-statements and to say “I need” instead of “You should.”
“Thinking through what you’re going to say beforehand is helpful,” Grant says. “Describe things objectively, without loaded emotion behind the words. Send the message you want to send.”
Do not be afraid to use your words. “I always tell people, ‘Tell me more about that,’” says Shelley Phoenix, a Sales Specialist for Highgate Senior Living. “Everybody has a valid point. Use more words. Tell me more about that. It’s all about communication and saying what you truly mean.”
When dividing caregiving tasks, roles, and responsibilities, consider each family member’s interests and skills as well as their availability. Maybe your sister does not have time to go to doctor appointments with your dad during the day, but she can pay his bills online at night. Perhaps your brother, who lives out of state, can visit every few months to give you a break.
“We all have different strengths,” Grant says. “Try to recognize that and allow people to contribute in different ways.”
Start by asking your parent what assistance they would like or what would help them have a good day. It can help to ask questions to understand their basic wishes: “Here are the things you do now. What are things that are really important to you?”
“The earlier you have the discussion, the more options you have and the smoother things go,” Grant says. “Get specific. Not, ‘Oh, we’ll get Mom some help.’ What specifically does she need? Identify the things that need to be done, who is going to do it, and how often.”
At the end of the meeting, make sure everyone has a clear understanding of the issues and considerations discussed and document any decisions and agreements that were made during the meeting.
Schedule a Follow-Up
Family meetings need to take place regularly. Set a date for the next meeting. It could be in a week or a year, but setting a time to reconvene is useful. Use email, phone, or whatever is convenient for your group to stay connected in the meantime.
Discussions around aging and long-term care can be emotional. When you add childhood roles and rivalries, resistant parents, disagreements over practical issues, and the burden of care, it is no wonder that caring for an aging loved one can be one of the most challenging family milestones.
For a guide to getting everyone on the same page, download our guide How to Manage Challenging Family Dynamics When Making Long-Term Care Decisions today.