Steps to productive, peaceful adult family meetings

Despite reaching mature adulthood, unresolved issues and sibling rivalry can resurface resulting in emotionally charged discussions

Growing up with three siblings made for highly entertaining family meetings.

Given my late father, Greg, was a criminal lawyer, these meetings were appropriately coined the Johnstone judiciary proceedings.

An unfavourable incident took place and a dichotomy of testimonies made a verdict difficult to reach. Judge Greg was called in to mediate the formal proceedings.

The suspects were directed to the kitchen stools. Ground-rules were reviewed: no feet touching the kitchen floor, no yelling, no lying and no leaving stools until justice was served.

Despite plea-bargaining and finger-pointing, a verdict was always reached. A written statement or confession was sometimes required. Once or twice, coercion was involved. The “Get Out of Jail Free” card was a last resort.

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 took $20 from a wallet or who broke the new lamp. Families are dealing with tough issues such as end-life-care, dementia, selling the family home and parental placement in residential care.

Despite reaching mature adulthood, unresolved issues and sibling rivalry can resurface resulting in emotionally charged discussions. Remember, the focal point of family meetings is on dealing with current concerns facing aging loved ones not resolving long-time 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 and commit to this. Include each family member’s specific issues raised.

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 realistic review date.

Two important agenda items include how to talk to your parents about accepting support and ensuring they are key players in decision-making. Although your first meeting may be done without your parents, subsequent meetings should include their involvement, if possible (e.g. Alzheimer’s disease may rob your parent’s ability to remember and/or speak, thereby making participation impossible).

• Planning

Gather as much information as possible on your parent’s medical, health, emotional, social, legal and financial issues at hand. Share this 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 and reach out to services and support programs in your community.

• Partnering

Allow everyone at the meeting to have the same amount of time to have his or her say. Doing this 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 an outside professional. Case managers, eldercare planners, social workers or a trusted friend can facilitate the process objectively keeping the meeting focused, quickly identifying priorities and providing 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 Friday.