A Season of Peace: Family Dynamics & Eldercare

After nearly 25 years in Geriatric Care Management, we have come to understand a few things about family dynamics in eldercare.

  1. Eldercare is a family affair
  2. Every family is unique
  3. Every family has a past, “black sheep”, secrets, or favorites

We have seen the full spectrum of families from those who are remarkably close and loving to those with adult children who’ve suffered abuse and trauma growing up. Regardless, we see a remarkable theme of responsibility that adult children feel to find care for their aging parents. Each family must gather to find their unique way to make decisions and find the help they need.  

Easier said than done. Many people find eldercare planning so unappealing, they wait until there is a crisis to deal with it. Family meetings that do occur can often suffer because of emotional strain and a lack of direction. Having a plan in place can bring an incredible peace of mind to aging parents and their adult children. As the holidays approach, here are a few tips for conducting productive family eldercare conversations while keeping the peace.   

Get Organized:

Choose a facilitator who can take on the role of organizing and conducting the meetings. This should be someone who can remain as neutral as possible, maintain the focus, model good communication skills, mediate tense situations, propose options but allow the family to decide.

  • Prepare an agenda in advance and give others a chance to contribute to it.
  • Make a list of concerns and problems for discussion during the “solutions” portion of the meeting.
  • Assign a recorder for the meeting to capture decisions/ questions/ concerns.
  • Consider carefully who should attend

Listen Up:

  • A successful family meeting gives everyone a chance to be heard
  • Give the older adult time to think and respond to questions
  • Ask about others’ hopes, fears, and goals
  • Define values that will drive decisions in care
  • Listen to learn how others view the situation before you express your point of view.

Set Ground Rules:

  • Choose a neutral and safe location
  • Minimize distractions
  • Deal in facts and truth as much as possible
  • Be inclusive and utilize technology to involve siblings and other family that may live far away.

Be Respectful:

  • Each person will process change differently. Help participants identify family priorities and the reality of the situation in a way that is respectful of their emotional processing. 
  • Start and end on time. Schedule further conversations/ meetings that accommodate everyone’s schedule
  • Compromise- work toward consensus and create win/win solutions.
  • Be open to changing your mind as you hear other’s thoughts and ideas.

Set Expectations:

  • Explore each family member’s talents
  • Explore what they each can give (time, expertise, money, etc.)
  • Explore each family member’s needs
  • Delegate Tasks: Help family members move away from a “do it all” mindset. This can help to reduce guilt, blame, favoritism, stress and tension from competing demands.
  • Create a written agreement with your decisions
  • Make a calendar of tasks and next steps
  • Schedule future meetings to check-in with one another about changing developments and assess how the plan is working.

Watch Your Language:  

  • An “I’m sorry” goes a long way in getting the conversation back on track.   
  • If a topic gets heated before all the facts about the situation or solutions have come to light, take a step back and say, “I understand that you are really concerned about this. Let’s wait until we have more information and revisit this topic.”
  • Be mindful of sentences that begin with “you”, as they can come across as accusatory. Stick to “I” statements and talk about your personal experience/ perspective. For example, instead of saying “You shouldn’t be driving anymore dad!” Try starting the conversation by saying, “I feel responsible for your safety and worry about what I would do if you were in an accident Dad.”  

Cultivate Inner Peace

Sometimes it is the people that we love the most who can be the most challenging. It can be helpful to remind ourselves of our own power during difficult circumstances. In the words of Viktor Frankl, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” William James would add that, “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”

There are a lot of things that we do not have control over, like growing older, or other people’s actions. When we are able to cultivate our own inner peace that is not dependent on the environment, others, or our circumstances, we are better able to take care of ourselves and others. 

Published on November 27, 2013.