A Guide to Caring for Aging Family Members

The Family Meeting

Debbie Williams-Maclean’s discussion of the family meeting is right on. As I’ve stated in “What to Do about Mama?” (p. 54):

“A productive family meeting can build a strong foundation for family caregiving. Do you share common values? Talk about what is most important to all of you—autonomy or safety. Establish common goals. Divide responsibility based on the strengths and abilities you bring to the family. It is important to be specific. Develop a contract that delineates the commitments family members have made, and solidify those commitments with signatures that verify that everyone understands and agrees to the plan. Be sure to date the contract in case changes are needed later on.”

Although we initially had a family meeting in our own caregiving situation, we were not specific enough about expectations, responsibilities, and commitments. After my mother-in-law had been living with us for two years, I started to attend a support group, which led to a second family meeting. This excerpt from “What to Do about Mama?” (pp. 12-13) describes that experience.

“The group leader suggested that we try to schedule a family meeting. I spoke to Shelley about the idea, which led her to call her other siblings and schedule one. Shelley also suggested we make a list identifying “What is Working and What is Not Working” (Shelley is a social worker), to distribute to the family beforehand.

David and I worked very hard on our “assignment.” We wrote openly and honestly about objectives, environment, health, communication, socialization, and family support—enumerating the positives and negatives in each category. What was “heard,” however, were only the “criticisms” regarding the unwillingness to take risks and make sacrifices, requirements to schedule respite visits a year in advance, “can’t do” attitudes, elevating other priorities over and above Mom, and the second-guessing of our decisions. At the meeting, David’s siblings reacted defensively and angrily. I assume much of that stemmed from guilty feelings. They made comments such as, “You don’t understand the pressures of our jobs.” The meeting was stressful and emotionally exhausting. I had to leave early to babysit grandchildren, and the meeting continued with David, his siblings, and now their mother, too.

After I left I felt anxious and sick to my stomach. I was worried that the meeting set us all back more than it had moved us forward. But later, when David joined me for our overnight babysitting stint, he expressed that he was satisfied with what had occurred. He said that the process was cathartic for him; that at least we got a response out of his siblings. Scott had apologized for the remarks he had made to me, and everyone agreed that ineffective communication was the main problem.”

As Debbie also says in her entry Person-Place-orThing, “In my everyday quest to devour as much information on the subject of Caregiving, I run across all sorts of articles. Debbie is certainly right on again. And I will add that it a really good to look at and consider a variety of perspectives and ideas. That’s what’s great about support groups…but that’s an entry for another day.

Barbara Matthews

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