Growing up with three siblings made for unique and highly entertaining family meetings. Given my Dad, the late Greg Johnstone was a criminal lawyer, these meetings were often coined the Johnstone judiciary proceedings.
The most common crime in the Johnstone household: stealing food. In his own way, Judge Greg provided our family with a way to sit down and do our best to resolve the conflict. The suspects were directed to sit on the kitchen stools. The ground rules were: no feet touching the kitchen floor, no yelling, no lying and no leaving your stool until justice was served.
The proceedings weren’t always pretty. Various strategies were used — plea-bargaining and finger pointing. Once I tried presenting a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card.
But a verdict was always reached. A written statement signed by all the parties was sometimes required. Usually it ended in my Mother saying, “Now go give your brother a hug, like you mean it.”
Family meetings with adult siblings are a useful tool when making key decisions in the care of aging parents or relatives. Stakes are a little higher than who is washing the dishes or who gets the last piece of cake. Families are dealing with tough issues such as end-life-care, dementia, selling the family home and placement in residential care. Not everyone is going to agree and yet, it is in the best interest of an aging loved one’s care if consensus is reached.
Despite reaching mature adulthood, unresolved issues and sibling rivalry can resurface resulting in emotionally charged discussions. The focal point of family meetings is on dealing with current concerns facing aging loved ones not resolving longtime misgivings and old hurts.
Four Ps to productive, focused and somewhat peaceful family meetings
Project Management: Take the attitude that managing care for aging loved ones is like having a team meeting at work. Appoint a family member outside of the primary caregiver to take on this role.
Ask siblings to list their concerns ahead of time. Develop a short agenda. Include the list of concerns brought forward by each family member.
Identify areas of agreement and disagreement. Generate and prioritize a list of problems and conflicts. Allow for back and forth between family members by discussing options and solutions until some form of consensus is reached.
Document a time-sensitive action plan. Include what each family member has offered to do and how often. Set a review date.
Two important agenda items include how to talk to your parents about accepting support and ways to ensure they are key players in decision-making. Although your first meeting may be done without your parents, subsequent meetings will need to include their involvement.
Planning: Gather as much information as possible on the medical, health, emotional, social, legal and financial issues at hand. Share the information with family members ahead of time. Write a daily or weekly care-and-support schedule to provide an objective view of what care is involved. Research services and support programs in the community.
Partnering: Allow everyone at the meeting to have the same amount of time to have his or her say. It builds team spirit, accountability and a ‘we’re-all-in-this-together’ attitude. Encourage everyone to be honest about limitations when identifying roles and responsibilities.
Peace: Have ground rules. If everyone can’t play nicely or share, consider using a professional. Case managers, eldercare planners, social workers or a minister can facilitate the process objectively keeping the meeting focused, quickly identify priorities and provide clear action items for families to follow up with.
Wendy Johnstone is a gerontologist and is the founder of Keystone Eldercare Solutions. Her column runs in the Comox Valley Record every second Thursday.